By: Teri Stevens
There are a lot of myths and assumptions out there about sex, and one of the most common is that people stop having it as they get older. But humans are sexual beings, and as people live longer in better health, sex and sexuality continue to be, for many, a key part of living their best life. Sex releases endorphins, reducing anxiety and improving mental health. It keeps people active, brings couples closer together and can provide an escape from routine. It’s also fun—or at least it should be.
“Many adults have had little access to honest and comprehensive sexual health information and may have grown up around ideas of sex being shameful or something we don’t talk about,” says Shauna Fay, Health Educator at Nine Circles Community Health Centre. “That can lead to confusion and stress around sex that can take the fun out of it. Getting the facts about STIs, about how to make sex safer and how to increase enjoyment can give people the tools and the know-how to inject their sex lives with the spice they are looking for.”
Sex in the golden years may be a bit different than it was in years past but this doesn’t mean it can’t be fulfilling. In fact, it can be a great time to experiment and try something new. Here are some suggestions for navigating sex and aging:
Expand the definition of sex: The majority of people, when they hear the word ‘sex’ probably think of heterosexual, penis in vagina-type sex. But sexual activity is much more varied than that. The end goal is often orgasm, but it doesn’t have to be. The goal can be as simple as experiencing pleasure, with someone else, or by yourself. Each person’s sexuality—how much they want/need, what they’re into, how they express themselves– is diverse. Get creative—there are lots of different things to try out to see what fits for you.
Get it on with a little help: Some men experience erectile difficulties while some women experience vaginal dryness after menopause. Some people experience slower reactions to sexual stimulation or require more stimulation to reach orgasm. These changes don’t have to stop you from enjoying an active sex life. Sometimes it’s about slowing things down or trying a new technique. For women, using a high-quality water-based lubricant can also be a big help. Whatever is going on, don’t be ashamed of speaking with your health care provider about the options and be prepared to bring it up if they don’t. “Care providers can make assumptions just like the rest of us,” says Occupational Therapist Dawn James. “Or they may be focussed on another aspect of your health and not realize your sexual health is a concern for you. It’s important to know that addressing those concerns is important and valid. Sex and sexuality are important parts of overall health.”
Get in the right head space: Bodies change as they age, which for some can trigger or worsen negative body image. This isn’t helped by poor representation of various body types and ages in media and entertainment. In the real world, people of all ages, shapes and sizes have fulfilling sex lives. An AARP and Modern Maturity magazine survey in 1999 found that the percentage of people age 45 and older who consider their partners physically attractive actually increases with age. If you feel subconscious about your body, one strategy is to focus on how things feel. Fully inhabit your body and use touch as your guide to what feels good, either by yourself or with a partner. If body image issues are getting in the way of living life to the fullest, a therapist or councillor may be able to help.
Find positions and techniques that work best for you: As people age, changes to the body or different health challenges can impact activity, including sex. You may not be able to get into your favourite position anymore, or you may experience pain in your lower back. Communication is key between partners to ensure everyone is comfortable and having a good time. Pillows can be added to support different positions, and tools like vibrators can be used for foreplay or masturbation. Sex can be planned for specific times of day when you know you’re more limber, or when pain medications have had a chance to kick in. Try stretching before sex— it can be just as important as stretching before exercise. “Often, when people run into physical challenges, they can feel like their sex life is over,” says James. “But it’s not— you just need to figure out what your sex life looks like now. Occupational Therapists and Physiotherapists can be a huge help. Occupational therapy is all about getting people back to activities that are meaningful and important to them, and sex is definitely part of that.”
Take care of your sexual health: STIs (sexually transmitted infections) don’t discriminate by age. The Public Health Agency of Canada notes that while rates of infections like syphilis and gonorrhea are highest among young Canadians, rates are also rising among middle-aged and older adults. This shouldn’t be cause for alarm or deter you from exploring your sexuality. Taking precautions to stay healthy is just part of having a normal sex life. These days, many STIs can be cured by antibiotics, or managed as a chronic condition, but it’s best to avoid them when you can. Condoms aren’t just for preventing pregnancy, they also reduce and prevent STI transmission. If you’re having sex with a new partner, or with multiple partners, it’s a good idea to get tested, as many STIs don’t have symptoms. Experts also recommend that everyone, regardless of age, know their HIV status. You can request STI/HIV testing through your regular health care provider, or you can visit a community health clinic like Nine Circles for screening.