Ideas

Ideas | Rosalind C. Barnett and Caryl Rivers

The 70-year itch

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The late — and very funny — Joan Rivers once provided a unique commentary on old age and septuagenarian sex. Rivers professed how older is better “because older people know things that young people don’t know . . . most important of all, [they] know that sex doesn’t have to be great as long as the hotel you’re having it in is.”

Slow down, Joan. Sex for women in the seventh decade? No way!

In our youth-oriented culture, sex is for the young, attractive, and physically fit. It is decidedly not for septuagenarians and octogenarians who are past prime time. As the medical clearinghouse Advance Health Care Network cautions, “It is not uncommon to hear that older people should not be sexually active, or that sex should be limited to procreation and marriage, or that masturbation is dangerous and dirty.”

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Sexual prohibitions are stronger for elderly women than for men. To this day, sex is still not considered something that “nice” older women engage in. Sexual issues are rarely discussed by families of people in their 60s, 70s, or 80s. Studies of sexual behavior rarely included older people until recently because they were seen as largely irrelevant to the topic. In fact, a landmark study of American sexuality conducted in the early 1990s had 59 as the upper age limit.

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Yet, as Dr. Stephanie A. Sanders of the sexual research group at The Kinsey Institute, puts it: “There is no age limit on sexuality and sexual activity.”

Indeed, sexually transmitted disease transmission among the elderly has been on the rise, becoming a major health concern in many senior living communities. But data spell out a story much more nuanced.

Interest in sex doesn’t simply end at 70 — or even 80 or beyond — as many of us assume. We now know that the most important predictor of sexual interest and activity in a person’s later years is frequency of sexual activity earlier in life: If sex is central to a person’s happiness at age 30, it will probably still be so at age 60.

“At this stage of life, sex is like dessert,” Maggie, an 87-year-old retired editor, says. “Most of the time I can skip it because I feel fulfilled having a loving relationship, full of mutual respect, empathy, and companionship. Then there are times when it’s lovely to have — and want — dessert.”

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For our forthcoming book, “The Age of Longevity,” we conducted an online survey of 196 people 55 and older, who are part of a lifelong learning institute. The respondents were in good health and were candid and detailed in their answers. Much of what we learned turns conventional wisdom on its head.

A sizeable minority of women are still sexually active into their 80s, contradicting the view that old people no longer have sex. Among women 70 to 79, 34 percent said they had sex or masturbated in the last year, compared to 14 percent of those 80 to 90 years of age.

Not surprisingly, marital status makes a difference. More than 41 percent of 80- to 90-year-old women who lived with a partner reported some sexual activity in the previous year.

“While the frequency or ability to perform sexually will generally decline modestly as seniors experience the normal physiological changes that accompany aging,” Sanders said, “the majority of men and women between the ages of 50 and 80 are still enthusiastic about sex and intimacy.”

What was surprising, however, was that advanced aging is not the major reason for diminished sexual activity; health and relationship problems are the primary culprits.

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Jennifer, a 68-year-old educator, told us, “I changed partners and remarried 10 years ago in part because my previous husband was not affectionate and had little interest in sex. My current husband and I have a very satisfying sexual relationship, and it brings us both joy. For us, this is very important as we age.”

Some seniors even report that sex gets better with age. Margaret, an 81-year-old community activist, says, “It became much more enjoyable when I was no longer afraid of getting pregnant in mid-life. It remains very important to me now.”

Sex for people of all ages can be limited because one’s own attitude can inhibit good sex. One therapist recounted the experience of a 74-year-old female widow who had always been active sexually and was having a hard time dealing with the loss of this important part of her life. When the therapist suggested that she purchase a vibrator, the woman reacted with total horror. The woman knew how much she missed the physicality of sex and was getting depressed because of it, yet her deeply held feelings of shame did not allow her to solve the problem.

Doctors, too, can be part of the problem. If physicians routinely asked more questions about the sex lives of their senior patients, the doctor would be able to talk openly about sexuality, helping older women overcome their hesitancies about the subject. The doctor’s assistance would allow the women to share their feelings, ask questions, and access information without guilt or shame.

Ellen, 74, told us that for her, sexual desire “has lost some of its ardor, but it is still there! I find that no one talks about this, so there is no way for me to know if I am typical or to compare my experience with others.”

“This subject has been taboo for so long that many older people haven’t even talked to their spouses about their sexual problems, let alone a physician,” said Dr. Stacy Tesser Lindau, a University of Chicago gynecologist.

“Many doctors are embarrassed to bring it up,” said Dr. Alison Moore, a geriatrics specialist at the University of California Los Angeles. Moore added that “even among geriatricians, there can be an age bias.”

Moore said that doctors constantly overlook assisting patients with sexual issues due to their prioritizing life-threatening afflictions such as heart disease or dementia. The lack of attention to the sex lives of patients does not diminish the reality that sex improves mental and physical health.

For senior women, the “partner gap” is also a bigger problem than it is for men. In an AARP study, only 32 percent of women 70 or older had partners, compared with 59 percent of men in the same age group. The gap grows among unmarried individuals. Forty percent of unmarried men had partners, while a meager 5 percent of the women did. Ultimately, older women, facing many years of being alone, are forced to end their sex lives due to a lack of partnership.

Mia P., a 74-year-old San Diego author, became a widow again after two 20-year marriages. She bluntly outlines a problem for many late-adult women. “A lively man with something to offer can find a woman 10 or 20 years below his own age, which leaves women in my age bracket generally out of the running.”

Mia hasn’t found many options. She has tried blind dates, dating services, and personal ads with no luck. It’s been an exercise in “futility and frustration.” Despite the difficulties, she’s still looking for both sexuality and connection in her life. “At this point, I don’t have a lot of loose lust flying around. My sex drive has diminished, but if I met a man that really attracted and interested me, it could be restarted.”

Dr. Rosalind C. Barnett of Brandeis University and Caryl Rivers of Boston University are the authors of “The New Soft War on Women: How the Myth of Female Ascendance is Hurting Women, Men — and Our Economy.”