To some, the phrase “senior citizen” may evoke images of volunteering at polling stations, doing laps around the shopping mall or perhaps amassing a substantial collection of antique cracker boxes or porcelain ducks. But who’s to say that behind the bifocals of your friendly neighborhood bridge champion don’t lie the lusting eyes of a veteran sexual conquistador?
Then again, local seniors may be stumbling and fumbling their way through matters of sex and intimacy just like the rest of us.
Still, a federally funded 2007 study of 3,005 older Americans found that nearly three-quarters of those between ages 57 and 64 had been sexually active in the previous year — and one-quarter of those ages 75 to 85.
"We don't lose our sexual interest when we age," says Kelley Wolfe, who runs Mountain Sexology in Asheville. "We have sex for a lot of reasons, not just to get pregnant: intimacy, sharing, closeness, fun, power and control. I try to help older people expand their idea of what sex is, other than 'penis and vagina.'"
And while, in decades past, there wasn’t much in the way of sex education for seniors, today, there’s a growing awareness of the need for resources and referral services to help Buncombe County seniors maintain happy, healthy sexual lives.
"As Baby Boomers continue to age, we'll be hearing a lot more about older people and sex," predicts Wolfe, who holds a doctorate in human sexuality. "It'll become less taboo."
Changing mores, shifting needs
Although the Buncombe County Council on Aging doesn't currently have a sex-education program for older adults, it's a topic that's definitely on the radar. "We are working on developing a replicable senior curriculum with the N.C. Center for Health & Wellness," Executive Director Wendy Marsh reports.
For women over 65, one of the top sexual concerns is the lack of a partner, Wolfe reveals. Because women tend to outlive men, there are more single women in their 70s, 80s and 90s, making it difficult to find suitable candidates for sexual intimacy. "Online-dating sites have proven beneficial to older people," she notes. "It makes their pool of potential partners much larger."
But those same demographics give single, octogenarian studs a major dating advantage — which may also play a role in rising HIV rates among seniors. "In a retirement home, there may be four women to every man, so you're going to have a number of men who have more than one partner," Wolfe explains. "They may have several different girlfriends they see throughout the week."
"Many people tend to think that if pregnancy is not an issue, protection is irrelevant," says Marsh. "Which of course is not true if you are sexually active." Accordingly, her organization has helped "distribute condoms to older individuals, especially those living in housing complexes who have more access to opportunity."
Part of the problem is that people returning to the dating scene for the first time in 50 years may not be fully aware of the risks associated with 21st-century sexuality. "They grew up in an age when the main STDs were gonorrhea and syphilis, which were pretty easy to get rid of," Wolfe points out.
Meanwhile, physical changes, assorted medical conditions and certain medications can make sex difficult or even painful for older adults.
Wolfe, who works with both individuals and couples, advises those confronting such challenges to broaden their horizons to include oral sex, mutual masturbation, full-body contact and sensual massage.
"Orgasm is harder to achieve when you're older, so the focus of sex should be closeness, not necessarily orgasm," she maintains.
Bringing up the S-word
A good starting point for older adults is broaching the subject with their doctors, who can recommend educational resources, provide information about safe sex practices, refer them to specialists or prescribe drugs for erectile dysfunction.
But for a complex mix of reasons, many older adults (as well as younger ones) are reluctant to talk openly about sex. One contributing factor, Wolfe maintains, is the "incredibly negative messages of sex-ed posters" that were in vogue more than half a century ago. "The posters were always frightening and always blamed the woman: She's this whore you're going to get a disease from, and all your limbs are going to fall off."
Even today, advertising and pop culture continue to deliver troubling messages, notes Marsh. "What is wrong with a wrinkle? Lots, apparently! If you are constantly bombarded by information that seems to say, 'You don't look good enough,' it is a bit difficult to feel attractive, let alone sexy."
Meanwhile, masturbation remains a sensitive topic even for the young, as politicians, educators, medical professionals and religious groups do battle over whether and how it should be presented in public-school sex-ed programs.
And aging members of the LGBT community, notes Wolfe, may face additional obstacles, such as prejudice on the part of facilities and caregivers. "Will someone who's been ‘out’ his entire life have to go back in the closet when he moves into a nursing home?” she wonders. “Can a partner come and spend the night?"
Still, given Western North Carolina’s growing population of older residents (including retirees and second-home owners), it seems clear that senior sexuality will be increasingly prominent on the local agenda.
"We don't pass a milestone and suddenly just lose interest," stresses Wolfe. "I recommend older women have two masturbation sessions a week to keep the pelvic region in shape and to maintain good sexual health," she continues.
"It's like the old saying: 'Use it or lose it.'"
— Asheville-area residents Michele and Tom Scheve are looking forward to enjoying many years of senior sex together.