Top 7 (well, 8) Tips for Teaching Older Adults about Sex

Still image from "When Harry Met Sally..." (1989). Watch the entire deli scene here.

Still image from “When Harry Met Sally…” (1989). Watch the entire deli scene here.

“I’ll have what she’s having.” 

When I first saw When Harry Met Sally… (1989)this scene had me reeling with laughter. In the movie, Sally fakes an orgasm in a New York City delicatessen and unwittingly ignites the sexual curiosity of a septuagenarian. The older woman – played by Rob Reiner’s (the film’s director) mother – asks to be served the same dish, in the hopes of having a similar reaction. The line “I’ll have what she’s having” has taken on a life of its own, ranking #33 on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Greatest Movie Quotes of All Time, is featured in virtually every obituary for Estelle Reiner, and is still generating news articles in 2014. So, what makes this line funny?

It could be the timing, the dry delivery, or the mistaken association of Sally’s food as the source of the orgasm. But a big part of the humor comes from the irony of an older person requesting (in front of her own son!) to have a screaming orgasm. Dominant American culture largely regards senior sex as something nonexistent. Even my family physician dismissed the statistic of HIV/AIDS risk in aging populations: she chuckled, “Oh, most of my older ladies just laugh when I mention sex. They’re not having it anymore.”

If our own physicians – who are trained in the science of the human body – laugh at the prospect of senior sex, then how can their senior patients expect proper treatment? How can older patients voice their concerns in this culture of shame? When do we stop laughing at “I’ll have what she’s having” and start taking our older sexually-active population seriously?

The Need

First of all, there is a need for sexuality education for older persons and those who work with them. More than half of people aged 57-85 are sexually active, and about half of this group experiences regular sexual problems. The rate of sexually transmitted infections in older adults has doubled in the last 12 years. An estimated 2.8 million people worldwide age 50 and older are living with HIV/AIDS. Sadly, thousands of nursing home residents are sexually abused in the United States, though it is one of the least acknowledged forms of abuse. Our culture of silence around senior sex only contributes to these issues.

This cultural bias is not exclusive to younger persons; older persons relate to themselves through these lenses as well. Seniors have absorbed a lifetime of social scripts

Peggy Brick, MEd, and lead author of "Older, Wiser, Sexually Smarter."

Peggy Brick, MEd, and lead author of “Older, Wiser, Sexually Smarter.”

that regard sex as something reserved for the young and the beautiful. As a result, seniors are made to feel disgusting and ridiculous for entertaining any sort of sexual desire. “Such scripts need to be challenged” says Peggy Brick in the Introduction of her book Older, Wiser, Sexually Smarter. While sex and sexuality change with age, it does not go away. Sex educators such as Peggy Brick, Terri Clark, and Joan Price are working to end the stigma and generate respectful conversation on the sexual concerns of older persons. But what can you do?

Top Seven Tips

Entire books have been written about this topic (see Recommended Reading list below), so there is a wealth of available information on attitudes, etiquette, and developmental considerations. I have condensed this information into 7 key points to significantly help sex educators when crafting lessons, creating educational materials, and interacting with older students.

  1. Adjust your attitude. If you feel turned-off by senior sex, challenge your own sexual scripts and work to develop positive associations around seniors and sexuality. If your future as a sex educator is in geriatrics, it is best to continue to revisit your assumptions and biases throughout your career. One of the most effective methods of attitude adjustment is to education oneself: see the Recommended Reading list below. Another method could be to watch movies that portray seniors in a positive light, keeping in mind that these movies tend to only portray white heterosexual couples (i.e. It’s ComplicatedSomething’s Gotta GiveLast Chance Harvey).
  2. Leave the lights on. Many older persons develop difficulty seeing in dim light, or adjusting from light to dark. If you design a PowerPoint presentation, consider leaving more lights on during the lesson; a well-lit room will actually help them to see your presentation better than a dimly-lit or dark room.
  3. Avoid the glare. Another common vision problem in older persons is an increased sensitivity to light glare. It you have printed material, do not use glossed papers or shiny pamphlets, as these will reflect overhead light and be uncomfortable to read.
  4. Don’t shout. Shouting can come across as obnoxious and rude, especially when it turns out that the person you are speaking to can actually hear. Many older persons do experience diminished auditory capability; however, if they need you to speak louder, they will ask.
  5. Face the listener. If your students are hearing impaired, they may be able to discern your words by watching you while you speak. Some older adults adapt to hearing loss by learning to lip-read.
  6. Enunciate, but don’t E-NUN-CI-ATE. To make your speech more comprehensible to persons with hearing loss, pronounce your words slowly, pronounce each consonant, and do not let your voice drop at the end of sentences. However, do not bust out an impersonation of Dory speaking whale. Exaggerated lips movements can confuse a lip-reader. Speak clearly and use an even volume.
  7. Practice patience. If your students are quiet after you ask them a question, they may be taking a moment to process what you have said. Cognitive speeds decrease in old age, and older adults need a bit longer to discern the meaning of spoken words and to craft an appropriate response. If you have ever tried to communicate in a foreign language, you understand the need for a moment to translate words in your head. Allow for this pause, and do not display impatience.

All of the above points fall under the umbrella of courtesy. To acknowledge and accommodate your students’ developmental needs has a way of normalizing the aging process. If we bring respect and attention to the little things – avoiding glare, speak clearly – we make a greater impact with our students. If we do not accommodate these developmental needs, no amount of positive associations with senior sex will lead to a significant impact with one’s students.

The Final Tip

Personally, I would encourage sex educators to employ reverence when interacting with older persons. Cultural respect for elders has become less popular in dominant American society: older persons have been used as a source of comedy, such as in the scene from When Harry Met Sally. As a final bonus point, my personal addition:

8. Revere your students. As you employ teaching efforts that are courteous and non-judgmental, also take on a deep respect for older persons: treat them as sages that you have the honor of teaching. Give them what society denies them. Serve them what she’s having.

 

Recommended Reading

AIDS Community Research Initiative of America (n.d.) Age is not a condom. Retrieved from: http://www.ageisnotacondom.org/index.html

Brick, P., Lunquist, J., Sandak, A., & Taverner, B. (2009). Older, Wiser, Sexually Smarter: 30 Sex Ed Lessons for Adults Only. Morristown, NJ: Planned Parenthood of Greater Northern New Jersey.

National Institute on Aging. (2014). Age Page; Sexuality Later in Life. U.S. Department on Health and Human Services. Retrieved from: http://www.nia.nih.gov/health/publication/sexuality-later-life#causes

National Resource Center on LGBT Aging. (2010). Our trainings. Retrieved from: http://www.lgbtagingcenter.org/training/index.cfm

Sexuality and Aging Consortium (n.d.). Widener University. Retrieved from: http://www.widener.edu/academics/schools/shsp/hss/sex_aging/default.aspx

Price, J. (2011). Naked at our age: Talking out loud about senior sex. Berkeley, CA: Seal Press.

 

Advertisements

7 responses to “Top 7 (well, 8) Tips for Teaching Older Adults about Sex

  1. Excellent post Kira! Going to the Sexuality and Aging consortium made me think about senior sexuality it a very positive way. When I talk about aging and sexuality outside of CHSS, people are turned off by the thought of old people being sexual or (worse!) they think it’s a joke. I find that an important way to educate younger people about senior sex is asking them what they want their sex life to be at 60, 70, even 80 years old. This not only gets them thinking from another perspective, it also is a useful way to broaden the very definition of sex. Maybe a follow up post should be how to educate young people about senior sex!

  2. When I think about senior sex, I try to imagine what my desires will be when I’m 70, and I suspect I’ll still want to have an active, healthy sex life. If I want that for myself, why wouldn’t I want it for other people? It seems to me that our cultural revulsion around senior sexuality is a form of myopia: since young people are the dominant group of consumers of popular culture, they laugh at sexy seniors because they can’t imagine those people as sexual objects for themselves. But surely one can advocate for safe, consensual, pleasure-centered sex for people one doesn’t view as potential sex partners, right?

    When Harry Met Sally also employs ageism in a later scene when Sally weepily laments the fact that she’ll be forty “some day.” She tries to expose a gender double-standard by saying the Charlie Chaplin had babies when he was 70, and Harry cracks a joke, “yeah, but he was too old to pick ’em up.” The idea of the virile, baby-making 70 year-old male, though, seems increasingly rare. I’d argue that senior men also face pernicious stereotypes as either dysfunctional because they can’t get erections or as creepy, leering perverts.

    American culture doesn’t seem to allow for an authentic, distinct, mature sexuality. If it doesn’t look like young people’s vision of sexuality (erections for men, perky breasts for women), it isn’t real. This brings to mind Koltko-Rivera’s idea of worldview. We pretend that senior sex doesn’t exist or, at best (?), we advocate negative evaluative and proscriptive norms about what senior sex ought to look like. This is not a demonstration of cultural competency.

  3. Kira,
    This is an awesome post. I love your reference to When Harry Met Sally…a classic movie ☺. Up until being in the human sexuality program, I couldn’t imagine elderly wanting to have sex. I had the attitude of, “Many of them have had multiple joint replacements, or are on medications that lower their sex drive, so why would they even attempt to have sex?” I now realize how important sex is for older adults and I have a whole new respect for their sexual desires. Kudos!
    Krissy

  4. Kira,

    You did an excellent job on this blog. I, too am interested in this topic of older adult and educating them on their sexual activities.The way you have outlined your tips is great. I have never thought of the small details when having to present or discuss sexuality with this population. I, too agree, that there is a problem when physician voice the opinion that elders are not sexually active. I believe like the educator should evaluate their idea and opinion about sexuality with elders, I believe physicians should as well. I loved your introduction to the blog post because that is a famous scene when discussing orgasms. Great Job!

  5. It’s funny to me that we can acknowledge that seniors get lonely, but truth be damned if we acknowledge that seniors get aroused or horny. I would like to highlight Stevie Wonder as a new 64 years young father expecting triplets soon. I listen closely to the ridicule and astonishment that this “old” man is having what she’s having. Ageism scripts have condemned many populations from young to old. It’s time we turn the page. The leaves may have changed colors but the trees are not barren.

    This subject addresses that society often only sees love as a companionship and not a connection when it comes to seniors. We will say how amazing they are for being married 50+ years, but frown when they say great sex kept them going. I cherish seniors who acknowledge their sexuality and look forward to not only educing but following in their footsteps.
    Kira, “I’ll have what she’s having”, too!

  6. This is a great post! I have been wondering how I, as an individual and educator, can challenge this large culture of silence around sexuality and older individuals. Including older individuals in educational materials may be helpful in shifting society’s perception of sexuality in older adults. I believe images and stories of people over the age of 50 who are not solely depicted as fragile and loving, but also as sensual and horny, might help to normalize the idea that sexuality exists throughout the lifespan. It saddens me that even older adults are prone to believing that sex later in life is not something to be embraced and discussed.

    I do worry about the significant age difference between older students and myself. Why would they listen to me, we have so few things in common? These suggestions and accommodations will help me reach this audience in a way that does not seem forced and unauthentic.

  7. Thanks for this post Kira! Older adults are often overlooked, especially when it comes to the topic of sexuality. The assumption that the elderly are not sexual is held by many, and it was a message that I often heard growing up. For example, my grandmother was in hospice care for several years before she succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease. While living at the facility, she began to strike up a relationship with a man living there. He would constantly look out for her, push her around in her wheelchair, and eventually, they tried to go into each other’s’ rooms and close the door. This man also suffered from dementia……and he was married to a woman still alive not living in hospice care. When my mother got a call from the center that they wanted to separate my grandmother and this man, she was shocked. She exclaimed that my grandmother hadn’t been on a date since the 70s and now she was acting like a ‘home-wrecking harlot’. My mother assumed my grandma’s sexuality and sexual needs were a thing of the past, so this type of behavior was so confusing to her. The fact that this man was married made it worse in my mother’s eyes because she saw my grandmother as a ‘home-wrecker’. Since both parties suffered from dementia, it is likely that they did not realize they were engaging in an adulterous affair because the man’s wife was not often around. These two individuals were fulfilling their skin hunger and creating a relationship to fill their emotional needs. Along with older adults not being sexual, there is often a common assumption that people suffering from diseases or mental illness are also not sexual. A person’s mind might deteriorate and change over time, but that does not mean that the fact that they are a sexual being is just going to go away. The needs of older adults needs to be recognized too, and they should be educated on how to stay safe and healthy.
    I really appreciated the tips you offered. I have not been able to work with older adults yet, and I intend to take these into consideration when I do!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s