Retirement

Sex For Seniors Is A Good Thing – Why Isn’t There More Of It?

The wildly popular Golden Bachelor’s (age 72) televised marriage to a movie-star looking 70-year-old bride put a welcome spotlight on older adult sex. Not making it look icky at all – a departure from the portrayal of older adults in humor which typically falls back on negative ageist stereotypes.

Just in case I have to come to sex’s defense, I’ll refer to the National Institutes of Health: “Sexuality is the way we experience and express ourselves sexually. It involves feelings, desires, actions, and identity, and can include many different types of physical touch or stimulation.”

But far too often, sex and the senior citizen are considered a story about decline. For younger people, by contrast, the focus is on fulfillment, happiness, and bonding.

True Innovation in Senior Living

I recently toured the luxury Mirabella senior living facility on the Arizona State University (ASU) campus. It has a state-of-the-art sauna, three restaurants, glittering views, and musicians in residence. Residents have access to a classroom coach and can attend ASU classes. Mirabella is part of the senior homes on college campuses movement (almost all targeted at affluent people). ASU President Michael Crowe has branded ASU as innovative, and since the Mirabella is tall, urban, not-for-profit, and aggressive in integrating campus life with senior living, I guess it can be viewed as innovation.

But the next level up in advanced senior living amenities is a sultry sexy singles bar, classes in sexuality, sex coaching, and a discrete line of sex toys in the spa.

Such innovative senior living would deliver what seniors want and need.

Seniors Want Sex

Older adults who report frequent sex and a high desire for sex have much higher levels of self-reported well-being. That’s even though sexual activity declines with age, and researchers think the decline is primarily social, not physical. In the AARP’s Healthy Aging Poll of people aged 65-80, two-thirds said they are interested in sex. But less than 20 percent of elders reported talking to their doctors about sex.

Some surveys indicate that seniors are sexually active — but not in ways I had imagined. Despite the evidence that elders experience lust and satisfaction from their partners, for too long research on older people’s sexuality has been spotty.

In recent years there has been more research into sexuality among seniors and long-term partners. In one recent study, researchers examined people who said they were “madly in love” with their long-term partners, with relationships averaging 21 years. Brain scans of the participants found they had activated the dopamine-rich regions of the brain, similar to what teenagers would have about their new loves.

However, what was different surprised researchers. Among older people in love, the area in the brain associated with serotonin lit up. With a well-loved, long-term partner, sex can have the same neural reward-value as a new romance — or better. What’s more, serotonin and dopamine are important factors in combatting depression and loneliness. This is a big issue among seniors.

What Sexy Seniors Need

Stable Incomes

Poverty and the lack of a stable income seem to have a much bigger effect on sexual well-being in old age. Being poor while young does not depress sexual desire as much as it does in old age. Better Social Security and pensions could lead to more sex and better lives.

Drugs and Sex Toys

Viagra has of course helped many men, though libido enhancers for women have been less successful. The sex toy industry is a big one, but it has a blind spot when it comes to seniors. Fun Factory is an exception with slenderer models and other adjustments.

Counseling

But it is much easier for the well-educated and well-insured to get access to relationship counselors than it is for most others. It would seem that older people who manage to improve their relationships or use dating services and apps are typically well-educated and well-to-do.

Smarter Medical Care

We should sex up the Medicare Wellness Exam. The standard exam is aimed at all patients coming into Medicare to assess fall risk, depression, or physical and mental abuse in their relationships. This exam should include sex and intimacy. Currently, the exam does not ask about sex and intimacy.

Medical Education

Medical students barely passed a recent test on sex health knowledge. There is certainly not enough research on the sex lives of older people. Medical students in a recent study performed below a passing rate in a majority of sex health knowledge categories.

Better Medicare Sex Therapy

Medicare pays psychologists visits but mostly excludes marriage counseling. What about sex counseling? Conversations that avoid resentment and anger can help lead to sex. A classic is Dance of Anger: A Woman’s Guide To Changing The Patterns Of Intimate Relationships. But what about a man’s book? I really like David Richo’s How to Be an Adult in Relationships and Linda and Charlie Bloom’s book, The End of Arguing.

Medicare covers wheelchairs — what about sex toys?

Situational Same-Gender Attraction

What about changes in sexual orientation when gender ratios in senior communities tilt toward women? We know when there is an abundance of one sexual identity over the other — in prisons or boarding schools, for example — we find men who don’t identify as LGBTQ sometimes engage in satisfactory same-sex relationships. This could be true about sex ratios for older women as well. But there is very little research on this.

As I said above, senior communities and assisted-living facilities should consider regular presentations on sex and intimacy. College dorms often have sex counselors. I bet if properly marketed, these senior citizen communities would have a niche. But sex and intimacy shouldn’t be just for wealthy elders. Personnel in Medicaid-funded senior living facilities need training in this area.

As an economist, I worry that badmouthing sex and intimacy for seniors and making fun of it doesn’t make economic sense. If senior sex and intimacy were lifted up to get more social status and legitimate support from the medical profession, we could go a long way toward helping older Americans deal with loneliness, isolation, and financial fragility. Pairing up could help people share not only their elder years but also their expenses.

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