February 6, 2006
A University of Michigan Health Minute update on important health issues.
Sex and the silver years
U-M sex therapist encourages people over 50 not to let age stand in the way of active, healthy sexual relationships, and offers advice to spice up their love lives
ANN ARBOR, MI – Eighty-three-year-old Sylvia Hacker doesn’t let her age stand in the way of a healthy sexual life. The retired University of Michigan School of Public Health Sex Educator believes that, although age is inevitable, a lack of sexual desire doesn’t need to be.
“From the sperm to the worm we are all sexual,” says Hacker. “The reaction times may change, but you always have that built-in desire.”
Despite myths to the contrary, many adults can and do stay sexually active well into later life. That’s why it’s so important for adults over age 50 to not give up on love and relationships just because they think they’re too old, says Sallie Foley, MSW, a certified sex therapist at the U-M Health System.
“You’re not over the hill if you’re over 50, so get off the couch this Valentine’s Day and date, or find ways to strengthen your sexual relationship with your partner,” encourages Foley, AARP magazine’s “Modern Love” columnist and author of the book “Sex and Love for Grownups: A No-Nonsense Guide to a Life of Passion.”
During her 20-year career as a marital and sexual health counselor, Foley has worked to help countless couples and individuals break down sexual barriers to improve the quality of their relationships. She says that one of biggest myths she must help her patients overcome is that after a certain age, a person should no longer be sexually active.
“Whether one has a sexual partner or not, sexual satisfaction is an important part of people’s lives,” says Foley. “People need to understand how their body has changed over the years and be open to allowing pleasure in their lives.”
As people age, their sexual response will undoubtedly change, often due to hormonal changes, chronic disease or vascular problems. But that doesn’t mean they should give up on having active, healthy sexual relationships.
For many older men, sexual help may come in a bottle. The advent of erectile dysfunction drugs such as Viagra® now are giving older adults the ability to have sustained sexual activity.
While sexual function and reaction times may change with age, sexual vitality remains. In general, Foley says, men and women will experience a subtle reduction in hormones as they age, but there’s actually an increase in sexual interest for many people.
Even with a healthy sexual desire, there still may be some hesitation. Many older adults often feel that their body no longer fits the image of the sexy, attractive adults portrayed on television and in magazines. But Foley says a healthy relationship should move beyond body image and become more focused on love and pleasure.
“People often need to be reassured when they’re snuggling and canoodling together that body image really is not a problem,” she says.
Important are the health problems that arise as people age and may impact sexual relationships. If a health problem is hurting sexual response or causing other difficulties in the bedroom, Foley encourages the couple to seek out good information on ways to overcome the problem from their health care provider or a certified sexual health counselor.
Couples also need to be aware that their age does not automatically provide protection against sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs.
“People over 50 often think that they are now off the hook because they no longer need to be concerned about contraception,” says Foley. “But just because you don’t need contraception, doesn’t mean you don’t need protection. In fact, there is a rise in sexually transmitted diseases in people over 50 because they are not practicing safer sex.”
And Foley’s final piece of advice: “No matter what your age, always be sure to ask yourself if you’re happy with the sex life that you have. And if you’re not, consider asking questions and finding out more information so that you’re able to pursue something for yourself. It will be a life-long gift, and give you satisfaction and pleasure.”
Tips on how older adults can spice up their love lives:
- Don’t ignore the importance of intimacy, love and sexual pleasure for well-being
- Make quality time with your partner a priority
- Learn more about the emotional and physical aspects of sexual response, how those responses change with age, and how to deal with those changes
- Discuss changes, share suggestions, and talk about fantasies and desires
- Become more comfortable with each other and enjoy the freedom to express your desires
For more information, visit these web sites:
UMHS Social Work: Sexual Health Counseling Services
UMHS Health Topics A-Z: Sexual Problems and Aging
UMHS Health Topics A-Z: Pain with Sexual Relationships in Older Women
UMHS Health Topics A-Z: Arthritis and Sexuality
U-M News Service: Over the hill? Aging isn’t the end of sex, relationships
UMHS Press Release: Three U-M sex experts explain why and how Sex Matters for Women
Written by Krista Hopson
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