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?
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
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.
- 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 Complicated, Something’s Gotta Give, Last Chance Harvey).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.