Sexuality and Aging: Teaching about Sex in the Golden Years

Aging and Sexuality

Let’s face it.  Thinking about parents and grandparents having sex is not something that people typically enjoy thinking about.  It’s generally stereotyped that “old” people lose their sex drive at a certain age, and because young people may have this theory, when these young people become “old” people, they start to believe it themselves.  However, this is not the case.  According to Yarber, Sayad, and Strong (2010), “despite conventional wisdom, recent studies conducted in the United States have revealed that older Americans continue to be sexual beings” (p. 209), and in women, they are often to be found more sexual in their golden years compared to their younger years (Loe, 2011, p. 90).

Problems with Lack of Sex Education for Older Americans

Since sexually active senior citizens are ignored, there has been a drastic increase in STIs within the 55+ age group.  Russell (2012) states, “Health-care officials report a rise in sexually transmitted diseases among the nation’s elderly population and although detailed statistics are difficult to come by, they know enough to be concerned, to issue warnings, and to try to educate senior citizens about practicing safe sex” (“Changing trend: Seniors are latest focus of sex education“).  Sadly, some doctors could be the cause of the blame since sexual activity tends to be ignored in routine checkups.  To make matters worse, some older woman assume that since they have experienced menopause, there is no need to use any type of sexual barrier since there is no possibility of getting pregnant, thus igniting the dramatic increase in STIs (Kotz, 2007).

Recommendations for Teaching Sex Education for the 55+ Community

Because of this increase of knowledge about sex in the golden years, a tremendous amount of resources have been created for both sex educators and the senior citizen community itself.  With help from such strong supporters of sex after 50, Betty Dodson and Joan Price have created an awareness that sex is still good, if not better, no matter how old one gets.  Both of these women offer insightful blogs, books, podcasts, etc. that are helpful for any sex educator to learn from; however, it is important, as an educator, to remember to keep an open mind and not fall back into the stereotype that “old people don’t have sex.”  Brick, Lunquist, Sandak, and Taverner (2009) suggest the following principles for sex educators to have about sexuality in mid and later life:

  1. Sexuality is a positive, life-affirming force.
  2. Older adults deserve respect.
  3. Older adults are not all alike.
  4. Forget the cliche about “old dogs & new tricks.”
  5. Older adults learn from each other.
  6. Older adults deserve accurate & explicit information.
  7. Gay, lesbian, bisexual & transgender individuals must be acknowledged, respected & included in discussions
  8. Flexible gender role behavior is fundamental to personal & sexual health.
  9. Make no assumptions! (p. xii).

Teaching Senior Citizens

Teaching adults can be one of the most nerve-wracking groups to try and educate, especially when it comes to sexuality.  Older adults have more life experiences and tend to think that they know it all, despite their actions in risky sexual behavior.  As an educator, it is extremely important to come prepared to the lesson.  Adults need to know why they are learning something.  If an educator is unprepared, they will more than likely lose the respect from their audience and no learning will take place, keeping the senior citizens engaged in their risky business.  Adult learners also tend to learn a lot more by discovering things for themselves through the use of reflection and engaging activities.  Adults retain 15-25% of what they hear, 50-55% of what they see, and 80-85% of what they hear, see, and do.  Keeping the class engaged and moving is vital to having the lesson be retained (Brick et al., 2009; Silberman, 2006).

Whether people want to admit it or not, older Americans are having sex, and as a society, it is our responsibility to help educate them into make smarter, healthier decisions.

References

Brick, P., Lunquist, J., Sandak, A., & Taverner, B. (2009). Older wiser, sexually smarter: 30 sex ed lesso for adults only. Morristown, NJ: Planned Parenthood of Greater Northern New Jersey.

Kotz, D. (2007). Sex Ed for Seniors: You Still Need Those Condoms. U.S. News & World Report, 143(5), 45-46.

Loe, M. (2011). Sex and the senior woman. In S. Seidman, N. Fischer & C. Meeks (Eds.), Introducing the new sexuality studies (2nd ed., pp. 89-94). London, England: Routledge.

Russell, R. (2012, August 27). Changing trend: Seniors are latest focus of sex education. Blade, The (OH).

Silberman, M. (2006). Active training: A handbook of techniques, designs, case examples, and tips. (3rd ed.). San Franciso, CA: Pfeiffer.

Yarber, W. L., Sayad, B. W., & Strong, B. (2010). Human sexuality: Diversity in contemporary america. (7th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

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8 responses to “Sexuality and Aging: Teaching about Sex in the Golden Years

  1. Great post! This was thorough and well researched. I personally connected to the sentence, “Older adults have more life experiences and tend to think that they know it all, despite their actions in risky sexual behavior.” Having worked with older adults in a ballroom dance context, I definitely experienced tension when I instructed them on the dances of their own generation or older. They seemed uncomfortable in the role of pupil under someone young enough to be their granddaughter, especially when it came to dance styles that they enjoyed claiming “we invented that!” What you mention about coming prepared to class is absolutely essential to earning their respect. In addition to that, even though I acted as the provider of information, I related to them as if they were providing something for me with their attention and participation. I thanked them often, toned down my usual authoritative-teacher-body-language in favor of a more demure posture, and (when I had the time and a small enough group) asked them about their lives and let them contribute.
    Our culture isn’t too respectful toward senior citizens: we treat them as if they are irrelevant and invisible. Therefore, to treat them as valuable providers, contributors, and participants means a lot.

  2. This was nice to read. It is regarding a population that I am not drawn to. However it is important that as I matriculate through my time at Widener that I take time to understand better the ‘graying of sexuality.’ The issue are many and so often, we see people who are aging as being void of sexual experiences. However it is clear that the older people in our society are living vibrant, healthy sex lives. When I worked in HIV at johns Hopkins I met a woman names Ms. Mary. She had been poorly educated around HIV and how it was contracted. She talked to me about she never thought that she would get HIV because she was older. She made so many blind assumptions; appropriate education is important.

  3. I just read another blog post about experiential learning and when you said “Adults retain 15-25% of what they hear, 50-55% of what they see, and 80-85% of what they hear, see, and do. Keeping the class engaged and moving is vital to having the lesson be retained,” it only added to the reason for why experiential learning makes so much sense as a teaching method! I am curious about those statistics because that suggest adults retain a lot of information, go us! I do agree, older adults do need sexuality education though. Unfortunately they are forgotten and ignored when it comes to their sexual education needs.

  4. Very nicely written post! I just had to do a mock interview write-up assignment and I related it back to the stages of development and sexuality education. It really does seem like sexuality education needs to be re-administered once individuals go through main life events such as menopause. Our current sexuality education models seem to focus more on pregnancy prevention, so it is no wonder that older adults are not worrying about such things once that is no longer a possibility for them. I think that a repeat of sexuality education should be given to those randy retirees, so that they can safely enjoy the newfound freedoms at their fingertips.

  5. I don’t have any experience with educating older adults however I can see how it would be very stressful. It makes sense now, but before reading your post it had not occurred to me that adults learn a lot by discovering things for themselves. Incorporating lessons that utilize lots of reflection and engagement are a great tip for helping older adults learn. For this approach, would you craft the lesson so that adults discover what you are intending for them to discover, or is it more beneficial for the learner to lead the way?

    “Gay, lesbian, bisexual & transgender individuals must be acknowledged, respected & included in discussions” speaks volumes to me. When thinking about educating older adults I often see them as just that “older adults”. I need to remember that everyone is an individual with their own past and experiences, and not just lump everyone together into the population of older adult. Including everyone’s intersections in the sexuality conversation should help boost the learner’s engagement and reflection, soliciting more learning.

    On a bit of a side note, I’m excited to see if women truly are “found more sexual in their golden years compared to their younger years”. Such a great topic and great post!

  6. I love to tell this story, so I apologize if you’ve heard it. But when I was about twelve or so my grandma said to me completely out of nowhere while I was helping her make the bed: “John and I have sex!” She went on to explain to me that she would mostly be on top, but that his disability didn’t prevent them from being sexual. I think about this all the time, because her being so honest with me helped me to keep an open mind not only about his disability but also them having sex as older adults. I think if we make sexuality across the lifespan as a topic in sex ed for younger folks, then it might begin to feel like an increasingly more comfortable topic all around. I don’t feel much discomfort at the thought of older adult sexuality, and I think I have my grandmom to thank for that.

    At my job in sexual healthcare I mostly work with teens and young adults. However, the older adults I see frequently feel invincible to STIs. I think their resistance to condoms is generally rooted in no longer being concerned about pregnancy. However, some newly single folks still refuse condoms; I remember one older lady telling me that STIs were a thing that young people got.

    I adore that list by the way!

  7. Hello! Thank you for posting this blog. I actually used this information as my foundation for my lesson about sexuality and aging in my undergraduate course this semester. Students enjoyed exploring what this meant to them since many of them were traditional college age students and had not thought about their sexuality beyond this week. – SSR

  8. This was a fantastic post and an extremely important topic. As a health care provider, I have seen first hand how this lack of inquiry about sexual health plays out in the medical office. I have seen physicians and nurse practitioners infantilize their elder patients by making sweeping generalizations and assumptions.

    There is little time for inquiry about sexual health during the average gynecological visit. When the provider combines the physical annual exam with a discussion about health, illness, new medications, sleep and exercise habits, there is little room left for an in depth discussion about sexual satisfaction and dissatisfaction. Generally, a quick “Any pain with intercourse?” just about covers the sexuality piece of the visit.

    I think in order to be able to adequately meet the sexual, physical and emotional needs of elder patients, this population needs extra time within each provider visit. At least then, there would be built in support for inquiring about sexual health and educating about sexual safety over 50.

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