WE are living in a time where the prominence of sexuality in society is very pronounced.
Sex is discussed and presented more openly in modern TV and film, sexualized images and headlines appear on the covers of newspapers and magazines, and sexualized images feature strongly in advertising.
It is striking that the vast bulk of sexual storylines and images pertain to young adults.
Occasionally, we catch glimpses of a sexual life in middle age, but for older adults sex is practically non-existent in popular culture.
When older adults are depicted as sexually active, it’s commonly for comedic effect. TV tropes such as the Dirty Old Man, the Cougar, or the Silver Fox all serve to paint one picture: a sexually active older adult is an anomaly and so we should all point and laugh.
This serves to perpetuate a stereotype of later life being a time of sexlessness.
This in turn can feed into sexuality in older age not being acknowledged, or seen as a suitable topic for consideration.
What we know from the research is that sexuality plays a significant role in a person’s quality of life, and this continues to be true across the life span. For example, The Irish Longitudinal Study on Aging tells us that older Irish adults remain sexually active well into later life.
Sex matters to older people, but as a society we seem to ignore that fact.
While Ireland has historically been more socially conservative than many western countries, it isn’t just in Ireland that sexuality in older adulthood is ignored or marginalized. Sexuality in older age is largely airbrushed from the record in popular culture internationally.
And while it’s not just in Ireland, it’s also not just in TV and advertising. Studies from the United States and Canada, for example, show that doctors tend not to ask their older patients about their sex lives.
When researchers have shared mock case studies and asked physicians to outline their proposed assessment, the physicians often skip questions about sex when the patient is an older adult.
Even if every other detail about the case studies is the same — they ask about sex with the younger adults significantly more commonly than with those in later life.
In the relatively few instances where sex is discussed in relation to aging, it’s often through the lens of sexual dysfunction.
Many older adults report feeling embarrassed about raising the topic of sex with their healthcare providers, and it’s not uncommon for an older person to never have seriously talked about their sex lives with anyone.
This is the situation at a time when life expectancy is at an historic high, when more people are living longer, and when a growing share of the population is older.
It is estimated that by the year 2050, more than 17% of the world’s population will be over the age of 65. By 2034, the United States predicts that for the first time in their history they’ll have more older adults living in their country than children.
While adding years to life is important, we also need to consider how we can add life to years. We need to develop knowledge of what contributes to quality of life in older age.
It is also important that we get an understanding of how experience and attitudes change with age.
We know that the role sex plays in life changes as people age; we know that factors such as health and physical function impact on a person’s level of sexual activity.
The research also tells us that the way that adults define sex and experience pleasure can change as a natural part of aging. Sex may not remain the same, but it still matters throughout life.
That being said, we know a lot more about the role that sex plays in the lives of younger people. Studies tell us that sex continues to be important across the life span, but we know relatively little about its importance to older adults.
In order to address this gap in the knowledge, we’ve undertaken a research project, as part of a doctoral programme in clinical psychology in University College Cork, to explore the attitudes of older adults towards sexual wellbeing in later life.
The project is based around interviews with older adults that explore the role sex plays in their lives at present, what their expectations were of sexual wellbeing in later life, and how their attitudes and beliefs around sex have changed throughout their lives.
The current study addresses the experiences of older married/partnered women; we hope to develop further studies in time to seek the same information on men and on single women.
In conducting this research, we expect to gain a much richer understanding of the role and meaning of sex in older adulthood.
We can use the voices of older women to further our knowledge of this important topic and hopefully begin to shift the narrative about sex in later life.
We are currently seeking volunteers aged 65 and over who are willing to discuss their views about sexual wellbeing and add their own voice to this important research.
If this could be you, please contact me on 087 396 0015 or by emailing 117221886 @umail.ucc.ie.