It’s become a taboo topic but it shouldn’t be. As we get older, intimacy, relationships and sex are commonly whispered about or ignored completely, but researcher Catherine Barrett says it’s time to change that. Here she writes for Grey Matters about how we as older Australians can embrace, discuss and open up about the very things that make us human.
The sexual rights of older people are seldom considered.
In our ageist world older people are often considered sexuality-less – and strategies to address sexuality often come from a wellbeing perspective rather than a rights-based perspective.
Where discussions about sexuality do take place, they often have a limited focus on sex – rather than sexuality more broadly.
The older people that I speak to say they want to talk about intimacy and connection and sexuality – including sex, but not just sex. They want to talk about their sexual lives and intimate relationships more broadly.
Sexuality is as much about intimacy, touch, communication, body image and self esteem as it is about intercourse.
Another barrier to addressing the sexual rights of older people is the invisibility of older people’s voices. There are tens of thousands of published papers on sexuality and ageing and older people – but most privilege the voices of researchers rather than sharing older people’s narratives. We need to change this dynamic if we are to empower older people to assert their sexual rights.
I think there is still a perception among some service providers that older people don’t want to talk about their sexuality. That myth was busted in one of the research projects I was involved in, called Sex, Age & Me. Over 2000 older people completed a survey on their sexual knowledge, attitudes and behaviors.
Sex, Age & Me was the first Australian study of its kind to comprehensively explore the sexual health of Australians aged 60-plus, involving both a national survey and in-depth one-on-one interviews.
When asked how their sexual lives could be supported or improved, many older Australians discussed the need to normalise the diversity of sexual expression and desire in later life.
The research also showed that while many older Australians are sexually active – significant numbers did not talk to their healthcare providers about sexuality. They said that when sexuality was raised with healthcare providers, they received mixed responses ranging from positive to dismissive or uncomfortable, which ultimately influenced their willingness to discuss sexuality with them in the future.
They said that when sexuality was raised with healthcare providers, they received mixed responses ranging from positive to dismissive or uncomfortable.
Another key part of the research showed that the current older generation is more likely than previous generations to form new sexual relationships later in life, following the end of long-term monogamous relationships, and that many are using online dating sites to meet new partners.
As we all know, the world of dating is very different now to what it was 40 or 50 years ago. The rules have changed and older people need information on how to safely navigate online dating platforms.
A number of years ago I facilitated a workshop with older women around their sexual safety and wellbeing. Many of the women participating in that workshop told me they never imagined they would be single in old age. While some of them had lost partners and some of them had divorced, those who ventured into online dating described “it’s gone wild out there” reference the new rules of dating and the potential threat from scams.
The women talked about how some men have different sexual expectations now to what they had in their 20s. The use of Viagra is not uncommon now – it drives sexual expectations and does not replace communication about intimacy.
When it comes to Viagra, how that is negotiated is really important – and that applies to all couples. It can be a useful drug if it’s discussed and both partners decide that’s what they want. But there are some men taking the drug without negotiating this with their partner – and this can create tension in relationships.
Intimacy is not as much about erectile function, as it is about connection.
There is research showing that some men are accessing Viagra online, without a script and without discussion with their GP. This creates another issue – they may be sold harmful counterfeit medications and importantly they miss the opportunity to discuss the medication, and its side effects, with their GP.
The rates of sexually transmitted infections is also sharply rising among the 60-plus age group, the data shows. Perhaps this is not surprising given that many older people have never had safe sex education and many don’t believe they need to use condoms.
Another aspect of intimacy that is important for older Australians is how to maintain that connection as dynamics and roles change. For example, if a partner gets dementia or has a stroke, there’s that shift from being a partner to being somebody for whom you’re providing care. What impact does that have on your relationship? How is intimacy negotiated? How is connection maintained?
We need to be opening up conversations with older people – and ask how disease or disability is impacting on their sense of self and their intimate relationships. Older people have the right to access support services to help them navigate changes as they arise.
There are so many aspects of intimacy that need to be openly discussed. And while the research is there, we’ve not made a lot of progress in terms of social change.
It’s time to create momentum to change the way older people’s sexuality is perceived in society, and ultimately empower them to feel safe and confident expressing their sexual selves across the lifespan.
Catherine Barrett has over 30 years’ experience as a nurse working in aged care, as an educator, and as a senior research fellow at La Trobe University researching older people’s sexuality. In 2016 she launched Celebrate Ageing – a self-funded national project to challenge ageing and build respect for older people. The Celebrate Ageing program includes the OPAL (Older People And Sexuality) Institute, which focuses on the sexual rights of older people.