Are they still doing it?


The question should be, are you ever too old for sex?

A Guest blog by Paul Simpson, Senior Lecturer, Health and Social Care, Edge Hill University

Seven years ago, I went to a meeting about what it was like to be an older person/grow older in a Manchester. What struck me was not the usual collection of professional movers and shakers but a group at the back of the room largely of older Caribbean women. They’d come more for the company and the lunch and were, sadly, not included in the meeting but might have had so much to tell us and could have educated us if only we had included them.

What struck me more than anything was the pride the women took in their appearance.  Of course, this is a mark of self-respect and an everyday statement that age is no bar to pride in appearance. This got me thinking that some of the women might dress nicely because they still see themselves as attractive and are keen to maintain or recommence a sexual/intimate life. Bingo!  Here we were discussing all manner of issues about growing/being older but ignoring sex!

I asked myself why is this often missing from considerations of the quality of life of older people?  When I started digging, the limited research showed that sex/intimacy is effectively designed out of policy and healthcare services aimed at older people. When I asked a 78-year-old care home resident why this was the case, he told me: ‘Sex is never talked about here. We’ve had our sex life way back.’  Yet an 80-year-old woman in another care home said she would like a sex life but there was a lack of male partners of her age.  Indeed, care home staff told me of residents who were continuing to enjoy a sex life, though there could be problems, for instance, when residents with a dementia expressed sexual interest in another that was not their spouse or partner. There was also the issue of lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans (LGBT) residents who could find themselves doubly invisible as older and different for being LGBT. Research showed that such individuals often feel obliged to go back into ‘the closet’ and deny an identity forged over a lifetime.

Whilst the main story about older people and sex is one of denial – do they still do it? – the initial research I lead on care homes was important because it indicated that this story was hiding  a spectrum of experience from straight to gay with much in-between. Also, older people’s experiences ranged from those who had gladly stopped sex and were now focusing on grandchildren, to those wanting a sex life but lacked the opportunity, through to those who were continuing to enjoy sex.  With diversity in mind, the Older Peoples Understandings of Sex (OPUS) research team is developing resources for care home staff to use with older residents to start difficult, sensitive conversations that might address unmet or ‘hidden’ well-being needs. I have also branched out to focus on sex in later life with another research team – Sex and Intimacy in Later Life Forum (SILLF). Our campaign involves a media publicity drive to challenge stereotypes of older people as asexual (‘past it’) and work with healthcare professionals to create age-inclusive sex health and relationships services. It is good to see resources like IntimAge: a free to use online training and education resource for health professionals to learn about the sex lives of older adults (learn about the IntimAge project here).

Big thanks to the Caribbean women at our meeting. We hope our work will benefit them and people over 50 generally. We also welcome thoughts/suggestions about our work on the SILLF website.

For further information about the work of OPUS and SILLF, you can contact Paul at simpsonp@edgehill.ac.uk

Credits: artwork by Christian Guemy (based in an image by Lee Jeffries) for Cities of Hope. See this Street Art at the Northern Quarter, Manchester.

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