These are the words of an 83-year-old widow: "Physical satisfaction is not the only aim of sex...it is the nearness of someone throughout the lonely nights of people in their 70s and 80s. We need someone to hold, hug and confide in."
A married woman age 57 said: "I believe sex is a wonderful outlet for love and physical health. It's worth trying to keep alive in advancing age... it makes one feel youthful and close to one's mate."
A different story is told by a married 64-year-old woman: "Now that I approach retiring age, seems I am constantly compared by my spouse to other younger and attractive women... I have always been affectionate and supportive... I feel undesired."
These are a few of the words of more than 600 women age 50 and older who participated in a survey of women on sexuality and aging. When I was an assistant professor of nursing at the University of Vermont, I invited readers of AARP's "Modern Maturity" who were age 50 and older to participate in my study of older adults' sexuality. I asked the readers to complete surveys on such topics as health, sense of self worth, intimate relationships, and attitudes. To encourage the participants to be as open and honest as possible, I asked them not to sign their names to the questionnaires. I also invited the participants to describe their degree of interest, participation and satisfaction for a variety of sexual activities such as sitting and holding hands to reading or looking at erotic materials to saying, "I love (or like) you" to more physically intimate activities such as kissing, hugging, intercourse, masturbation and oral sex.
I wanted to explore sexuality in older adults from a broad perspective and not just equate sexuality with sex or sexual behaviors. Studies looking at sexuality in this age group are especially significant as society has often seen older adults as sexually uninterested, uninteresting and incapable. An earlier study of contemporary adult sexual behavior by University of Chicago researchers only included adults between the ages of 18 and 59. The researchers used this upper age limit since they found previous research had shown both the amount and variety of sexual behaviors declined with age. Financial constraints of the study also led them to reduce the upper age limit from age 65 to age 59. My study, then, intentionally examined women older ranges, and included items to provide a view of older female sexuality, beyond frequency and type of sexual behaviors. I also sought to include other aspects of oneself, such as self-esteem and intimacy.
How Did These Older Women Describe Themselves?
Nearly one-half of the women were married, while one-third were widowed. Three quarters of the women were satisfied with their lives in general. Their health status reports indicated that 40 percent had had a hysterectomy, while their most common health problems were arthritis and high blood pressure. Eighty five percent of the women described their health as good. I also found that women saw themselves from a positive self view and as participants in intimate relationships (41 percent described their spouse as the person to whom they were most close while 33 percent said such a person was a friend). For example, 90 percent of the women reported, "I feel I have a number of good qualities," and "I take a positive attitude toward myself."
Half of the women said their closest relationship provided sexual satisfaction while over 80 percent described their intimate partner as physically attractive, and both partners had a strong emotional attraction for each other. Women also described themselves as knowledgeable about sexuality and aging and liberal in their sexual attitudes. They knew physical changes in sexual function were associated with aging and 85 percent said older adults continue their sexual interest and activity well into old age if they are healthy. Furthermore, 90 percent believed sex was not just for the young, that late life romances are good, that and sexuality continues throughout life. In this study women described their sexual interest, participation, and satisfaction in various sexual activities:
- At least 50 percent reported being very interested, active in, and satisfied with activities such as sitting next to someone and talking, making oneself more attractive, hearing or saying "I love (or like) you," kissing, hugging, and caressing.
- Two-thirds of the women said they were "very interested" in sexual intercourse.
- Fifty percent or less said they participated "very often" in sexual intercourse.
- Sexual activities for which one-third of the women or less expressed being, "very interested, active in, and satisfied with" included talking about sexuality, reading or watching erotic materials, daydreaming about sex, masturbation and oral sex.
- Compared to their younger years, only 35 percent of the women said their present sexual interest had decreased.
- Fifty-six percent of the women said their sexual participation had decreased
- Thirty-eight percent said overall sexual satisfaction had decreased. These facets of sexual behaviors do continue for this group of older women!
For this group of older women, I concluded that greater levels of sexual interest, participation and, greater levels of satisfaction characterized those women who saw themselves in a positive light, had intimate relationships and had liberal sexual attitudes. Although the results of this study can't be generalized to the population of older U.S. women because the women had volunteered to participate rather than being randomly selected, the results do describe a view of positive and continuing sexuality of community-based older women.
About the Author:
Beverly Johnson, Ph.D., RN is a post doctoral student and researcher at the University of Washington School of Nursing.