Unit 2 : Sexuality with/without partner

Sexuality in the third age calls for a broader understanding of the meaning of sex. For instance, sexual activities beyond sexual intercourse can be more important here, such as masturbation or caressing each other. Sexuality in later life is determined by biological (physical state), psychological (cognitive efficiency, personality, behaviour), social (social relations, partnership, family), and ecological/contextual (housing conditions, infrastructure, finances) factors (Gatterer 1994). Nonetheless, sexuality amongst older people, especially older women, is often a taboo subject. In part, because in western society, where there is a tendency toward a view of “eternal” youth and thus there is often a “double standard of ageing”. This frequently means that women – more so than men – are sooner regarded as unattractive, old and asexual. Yet, for older people sexuality is a pleasurable, rewarding and enriching experience. This can mean that the views of an individual, group or society can often be formed around contradictions, frequently as a result of ignorance.

  Introduction

Sexuality in the third age calls for a broader understanding of the meaning of sex. For instance, sexual activities beyond sexual intercourse can be more important here, such as masturbation or caressing each other. Sexuality in later life is determined by biological (physical state), psychological (cognitive efficiency, personality, behaviour), social (social relations, partnership, family), and ecological/contextual (housing conditions, infrastructure, finances) factors (Gatterer 1994). Nonetheless, sexuality amongst older people, especially older women, is often a taboo subject. In part, because in western society, where there is a tendency toward a view of “eternal” youth and thus there is often a “double standard of ageing”. This frequently means that women – more so than men – are sooner regarded as unattractive, old and asexual. Yet, for older people sexuality is a pleasurable, rewarding and enriching experience. This can mean that the views of an individual, group or society can often be formed around contradictions, frequently as a result of ignorance.

Studies show that sexual activity of women as well as men decreases in later life. Nonetheless, while women between 18 and 40 years are sexually more active than men, this development changes in later life in favour of men. In cases of persons older than 60 years, twice as many men as women are sexually active (Unger & Brähler 1998). The most important influence on sexual activity is the presence or absence of a relationship. Notwithstanding a missing relationship, social disadvantage, such as early unemployment, low income or questions around domicile have a negative influence on sexual activity in men.  Sexual activity in later age can also decrease due to physical and hormonal changes.

The ILSE study “Interdisziplinäre Längsschnittstudie des Erwachsenenalters” (interdisciplinary longitudinal study of adult ageing) that has been running since 1993 and, which examines questions about the importance of sexuality and intimacy in later life, identifies tenderness as the decisive factor for a satisfying relationship (Müller, 2014). For example, while sex played an important role for 61% of the men and 21% of the women in this study, 91% of men and 81% of women aged around 74 years said that tenderness in their relationship was of prime importance. As such, tenderness proved to be the most relevant factor for a satisfying relationship in old age.

As noted, the absence of a partner is often the main reason for a reduced sex life in older age. This can be a particular challenge for women, since men tend not to live as long. Moreover, only around one third of the women who are single are ready to enter into a new relationship (Schultz-Zehden 2004).

Self-stimulation or masturbation is a variety of sexuality of its own, particularly when there is no partner. According to Butler and Lewis (1996) masturbation is practiced up to very old age. Indeed, some people start regular self-masturbation only in later age, often because they do not have a partner or they are physically impaired. Older persons should not be discouraged by negative social age stereotypes and it should be remembered that in every phase of life, new experiences and encounters can lead to an enriched sex life.

  Key messages

  • The sex life of older people, in particular older women, often remains a taboo subject.
  • Studies show that sexual activity decreases for women as well as for men when they get older. Nonetheless, sexual activity remains important for a fulfilling life.
  • Studies identify tenderness to be the decisive factor for a satisfying relationship.
  • One of the main reasons for a reduced frequency of sexual activities in later age is the absence of a relationship.

  Learning objectives

  1. Understand factors that can present obstalces to sexuality amongst older people.
  2. Recognise the manner in which sexulaity may change in later life.
  3. Appreciate how societal attitudes can be reflected in considerations of sexuality amongst older people.

  Content

 
Case Study

Martin (78) and Louise (76) have been in a relationship for 18 years, after they were both widowed. They live next door to Louise’s daughter’s family in a small countryside home. The family frequently have meals together. Martin and Louise have always enjoyed sexual activity together and lately realised changes regarding both of their needs when being intimate with each other. Due to medication Martin was prescribed for a heart condition, he realised he had become less fit for physical effort, including sex. Louise on the other hand has reluctantly detected she is forgetting names and having difficulties in mastering activities such as writing a grocery list. Therefore, her partner and her daughter have both been worried about her wellbeing, which led her daughter to involve herself more in the daily life of her mother. The couple has realised that they might need to adjust their intimacy and sexuality to these new circumstances.

Discussion Questions:
  1. Identify factors that influence Martin and Louise’s sexuality. What additional factors might be important when considering sexuality and older people? 
  2. Imagine Martin and Louise wanting to sustain their (intimate) relationship. How could they adjust to their life circumstances? 
  3. Consider relationships among older people in your community. What elements do you consider would be most important for satisfaction and dissatisfaction. What might you consider most valuable in a relationship as you become older?
  4. Sexuality in later life tends to decrease. Consider how factors you identified in the case study above might contribute to this?

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This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein