While youth and sex are highly celebrated in popular culture — the notion that old age is sexless is one that counselors, therapists and University of Alabama at Birmingham geriatricians see changing as the Baby Boom generation ages.
“People want intimacy and physical closeness,” says Diane Tucker, Ph.D., a professor in the UAB Department of Psychology. “Those needs don’t change as we age.”
Society is embracing that. Betty White is pushing 90 and making jokes on TV about sex. Older couples lounge in bathtubs on mountaintops in commercials for erectile dysfunction drugs.
“We’re never too old for sex,” says Kay Knowlton, Ph.D., a licensed, professional counselor and certified sex therapist with a private practice who also works with the UAB Center for Palliative Care. “Sexuality in older people is just as important as it is at any other time in life.
“When we’re young, we think sex is for people our own age — maybe a little older,” Knowlton says. “Studies have shown that even middle-age people find it difficult to believe that their parents are having sex at 65 or 75. But we never really think of ourselves as old. Aches and pains aside, most of us believe we’re still the same person we were 30 to 40 years ago.”
The boomers, says Andrew Duxbury, M.D., professor of geriatrics at UAB, are looking at retirement as the next stage of an active, meaningful life — not the peaceful rest of previous generations. Sex is still an important part of that life.
“Famous actresses who have recently turned 65 include Susan Sarandon, Cher, Bette Midler, Sally Field and Goldie Hawn,” he says. “Do we consider them old?”
Tucker, who also is a psychologist on UAB’s outpatient palliative care team, says our needs for closeness and intimacy don’t change, although the ways that we express them might.
“There are times for passion, whether you are 20 or 70,” she suggests. “But there is also a time when our needs for physical contact may change, when we need touch, closeness and gentleness more than the physical acts of lovemaking.”
Knowlton agrees. In her experience with palliative care patients, the disruption of physical intimacy is often one of the most stressful parts of coping with major medical issues.
“I talk to spouses who tell me that they lose all opportunity for contact with their long-time partner when that partner is so ill that they can’t even hold them, can’t lie next to them on a bed. At a time when touch and closeness is so vitally important, it’s often impossible to achieve,” Knowlton says.
Tucker says health-care providers need to understand the physical needs of older patients and that mental and physical health are tied closely together. A patient whose physical or sexual needs are met may be better able to cope with other health issues; a patient with unmet needs may not respond as well. Health-care providers need to ask the right questions and factor the answers into their care plan.
The goal is to age well, and sex and intimacy are part of that equation.
“I love being the age I am,” says Tucker, “and I want others to be willing to celebrate aging. Aging brings wisdom and perspective, the things that come with experience.”