09/15/2009 - Articles

It never ends: Aging and Sexuality - Part I

By: Verne Kallejian, PhD

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Introduction

The social and psychological determinants of sexual behavior for seniors can be grouped under three headings: experiences during younger days, attitudes and feeling about sexuality in senior years, and mood states in senior years.

A constant factor is finding a suitable partner. The effects of illness and medication on sexual behavior will be discussed in future articles.

Early Experiences

It is impossible for a woman to grow up in the early years of the twentieth century without feeling the effects of sexual discrimination. If one can survive the impact of attitudes toward women, then there are legal and institutional barriers that discriminate toward women. In the first decade of the twenty-first century discrimination toward woman has dramatically changed and hopefully will continue to change.

In youth, when energy was plentiful and sexual drive was at its peak, sex was experienced as a part of life that required little or no effort. Attitudes toward sexuality and sex were rarely discussed. Both women and men seemed to know what was going on with their partner. However, the partner did not always know what he/she was communicating.

Men and women knew when there was love and caring and when sex was a ritual. Seductive women could exploit men with weak egos. Predatory men could exploit women. Sex became boring after a while. In married life, unless energy was devoted to maintenance of the relationship, sex slowly disappeared.

Other factors associated with sex

Whatever a society considers most important, becomes symbolic of almost any human need. Money, for example, can represent power and love. Gifts of money carried overtones of affection, dominance and aggression. Anything as important as sex is also symbolic of many needs. Sometimes having sex is like having another cup of coffee. At other times, it is a deeply moving spiritual experience. For some sex represented power and control over another person. Sex could become the outlet for anger and aggression toward the opposite sex. There is no end to these associations.

Sexuality is an essential element of one's identity. Regardless of the songs of the forties, fifties and sixties and the romantic productions of Hollywood, the real attitudes and feelings associated with sexual activity were rarely discussed.

Sometimes women became available to a partner because there was nothing else to do. In new relationships, men were focused on one objective and resorted to other kinds of romantic activities as stepping-stones to the ultimate goal. These attitudes frequently persisted throughout married life or extended bachelor hood.

Women discovered that men were not always the kind of person that they pretended to be. After being fooled often enough, a woman would take any affectionate gesture or romantic overture with a grain of salt. Woman also learned that men were goal oriented no matter what they did. It is not unreasonable to assume that many women decided that sex was all they had to offer a man and developed resentment and anger with sexual overtures.

Sex and Seniors

This overview is to bring into awareness the kind of attitudes that often persist from younger days. One would expect that marriage and child rearing would have brought about dramatic changes in attitudes toward the self, the opposite sex, and one's own sexual identity. Frequently this did not happen. Attitudes and feelings about sex are buried deep in the psyche and often do not surface.

The social environment of most western cultures has never allowed for the discussion of sexual behavior. At best it was frowned upon and discouraged. This same secretive environment exists for seniors today. If older men display the same kind of sexual interest as younger men, they are labeled as "dirty old men". When older women make an attempt to solicit sexual interest by manner or dress they are silently belittled, or admonished to "act their age".

It is a common belief that sex and attractiveness are qualities that belong to the young and not the old. Unfortunately, many seniors also hold these attitudes. Guilt and apprehension can cause older adults to conform to these expectations.

Depression and Anxiety

One very common emotional state, depression, has a profound effect on sexual behavior. Loss of work through retirement, ill health and death of a spouse are difficult for older adults. If severe, a person can withdraw from all social contacts and stimulation. For someone who has had a good sex life, lack of sexual activity makes the depression more real. Anxiety states have the same downhill effect on sexual activity. Some anxiety disorders like Obsessive-Compulsive states, if severe, often prohibit any kind of physical contact. A person with strong control needs will avoid any situation that can not be controlled. The definition of love and intimacy includes giving up some control. People need to develop tolerance for close relationships.

What to do about all of this?

The main pathway is social activity. Joining a support group can be very rewarding. Getting your attitudes in the open and hearing how others have dealt with these problems provides support and encouragement. Almost every community provides social events for seniors. Take part in the community services of senior centers, church groups and community groups. You can trust your intuition to help you decide when you might need some professional help to get you started on a new pathway.

The objective of all of this activity is to identify the barriers and learn the skills associated with emotional intimacy. Learn to be who you are and know it is just fine. There is nothing that is as exciting as being in touch with yourself and your partner and sharing your identities. There is always to apprehension that you will say something that will jar the relationship. If that bothers you then talk about that. Just keep going and you can't lose.

Many relationships succeed without sexual activity. But, if you intend to sexualize your relationship, you can create the opportunity to have intimate conversations. Emotional intimacy is the very best prelude to enjoyable sexual intimacy.

Feelings of guilt, embarrassment, and awkwardness are not obstacles for seniors who want to enjoy sex. Conversation and practice will wear away these feelings and attitudes. Unfortunately, these very feelings interfere with efforts to begin to deal with them.

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Created on: 11/08/2002
Reviewed on: 09/15/2009

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