Everything you always wanted to know about (late-life) sex

By Joan Price

We as Baby Boomers and elders have just begun to speak out loud about older-age sexuality, and we owe it to our generation (and those following us) to keep talking. I’ve been writing and speaking candidly about sex in later life for more than 10 years and in that time, I’ve learned how sex has changed for older adults of my generation, what they still need to know and how women in later life feel about sex. I’ve received thousands of emails and whispered confidences from older adults of all genders who tell me their stories and ask for advice. 

Sex Is Good for the Body and Mind

Why bother with sex? Sex—and by that I mean sexual activity and orgasm with or without a partner—does all these good things for the body and mind:

  • Reduces stress
  • Enhances mood
  • Strengthens the immune system
  • Helps fight infection and disease
  • Lowers diastolic blood pressure
  • Burns calories
  • Keeps sex organs healthy
  • Improves blood flow
  • Helps with sleep
  • Aids in healing wounds
  • Helps prevent vaginal atrophy
  • Relieves headaches and other body aches
  • Boosts self-esteem
  • Improves body image
  • Relieves depression
  • Reduces risk of heart disease
  • Reduces risk of prostate cancer
  • Reduces risk of dermatitis
  • Relieves chronic pain
  • Boosts testosterone and estrogen levels
  • Strengthens the pelvic floor to prevent incontinence
  • Increases blood flow to all regions of the brain, increasing mental acuity
  • Produces phenethylamine, a natural amphetamine that may help reduce overeating and cravings for junk food and cigarettes
  • Makes you feel more loving toward and bonded with your partner
  • Revs up your creative energy
  • Reduces cholesterol levels
  • Makes your skin glow
  • Relaxes you
  • Enhances quality of life
  • May improve longevity
  • Makes you look younger
  • Makes you happier
  • Feels really good

—Joan Price

All these benefits of sex can be found in Price’s book, The Ultimate Guide to Sex after 50

Three “Camps” of Sexual Activity

These communications seem to fall into three camps: 1. My sex life is fabulous, maybe the best sex of my life; 2. Sex for me doesn’t work the way it used to and isn’t satisfying because of these problems; and, 3. What sex life?

Those in the “great-sex” camp describe many reasons that they find sex satisfying—even exhilarating—at this time of their lives. They and their partners feel more relaxed about sex, less goal-driven, more able to enjoy extended sex play that may or may not result in intercourse.

Instead of being driven by the biological urges of their youth, they’re enjoying slower sex, attuned to all the sensations along the way. They cope with their body’s changes and challenges creatively, trying new things, learning new ways to communicate. If they’re in a heterosexual relationship, they find that men and women are more in sync now than ever before—older men enjoy being on the receiving end of slow arousal and extra stimulation, as well as giving it.

Those in the second camp are experiencing problems that inhibit sexual function, arousal or pleasure. According to one study, about half of all sexually active men and women ages 57 to 85 in the United States report at least one bothersome sexual problem; one-third report at least two. Yet doctors rarely address sexual concerns in older adults, particularly in women, according to Lindau and Gavrilova’s 2010 article in the British Medical Journal (340: c810, 2010). (Only 38 percent of men and 22 percent of women reported having discussed sex with a physician since the age of 50, according to Lindau et al. in the New England Journal of Medicine [357, 2007]).

Often, the problems are medical, caused either by a physical condition or by medications and other treatments. Older adults need to learn to ask doctors about erectile issues, vaginal discomfort and medications that interfere with sexual function. They need to be clear and assertive until they get the right diagnosis and treatment—not an easy feat when doctors may not know how to help.

I ask audiences to repeat this phrase and use it with their medical professionals: “If you can’t help me, please refer me to someone who can.” (See my article about talking to your doctor about sex on AgeBlog)  

Experimentation and Creativity Are Key

Many problems not requiring medical intervention can be solved with information, experimentation and creativity. When knee or hip pain prevents enjoyment of a favorite position or activity, many try using comfortable “sex furniture.” Arousal and orgasm are enhanced by bringing sex toys to partnered and solo sex dates.

One of the most common problems for women is slow arousal. I recommend three solutions: exercise before sex to increase blood flow; use a vibrator to intensify clitoral sensation; and, have sex (partnered or solo) regularly—at least once a week, the more the better. The more often people engage in sex, the more easily aroused they will be.

The other common problem I hear from women is not being in the mood or experiencing desire. “I just don’t care about sex anymore,” they tell me. “I used to love it, but now I barely notice if I go weeks or even months without it.” They’re no longer experiencing the hormonal urge, and the less often they have sex, the less they care about it. And yet, once they relax into arousal and let the physiological response happen, they’ll often be amazed at their excitement and enjoyment.

Sexual activity invites the mood and ignites desire. I advise women to “just do it,” and discover that mood and desire follow the physical response rather than preceding it. Women are surprised when they hear this, and I get lovely responses, such as “You may have just saved my marriage.”

For women in the third camp who are not having sex, this may be because they’ve intentionally stopped, or because they are not partnered and are either frustrated or resigned. I advocate masturbation (especially with sex toys!) to keep sexually vibrant.

So why should people “bother” with sex in later life? See the lengthy list of benefits (in the sidebar)—all reasons to engage in sexual activity. And let’s continue this discussion, because sex is ageless.

Joan Price is an advocate for ageless sexuality, and author of the new Ultimate Guide to Sex After 50: How to Maintain—or Regain!—a Spicy, Satisfying Sex Life; the award-winning self-help book, Naked at Our Age: Talking Out Loud about Senior Sex; and the sexy memoir, Better Than I Ever Expected: Straight Talk about Sex After Sixty. Visit Price’s blog, Naked at Our Age, for news and views about elder sexuality.