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A lot of people anticipate enjoying their golden years – but what does that look like? Time for hobbies, travel, spoiling your grandkids? What about great sex?
A study published last month in The Gerontologist looks at how well our sexual expectations match up with reality over time.
This story was adapted from the April 30 edition of NPR Health, a newsletter covering the science of healthy living. To get more stories like this delivered to your in-box, click here to subscribe.
As part of the MIDUS (Midlife in the US) study, hundreds of partnered adults ages 45 and up were asked to rate how satisfying they expected their sex lives to be 10 years in the future. Researchers then checked in with the participants a decade later.
Their findings seem to demonstrate the power of positive thinking.
Participants who were optimistic about their sex lives reported having significantly more frequent and more satisfying sex than those who had lower expectations. Also, “sexually optimistic” individuals who acquired physical limitations they didn’t have ten years before – such as pain that made it harder to lift groceries or exercise – reported having more frequent sex than people who had lower sexual expectations and no such limitations.
Natalie Wilton, a therapist who specializes in senior sexuality, says it’s no surprise that people feel pessimistic about sex as they age.
“As a society, we buy into a lot of those really dangerous tropes and stereotypes, which make it very difficult for older adults to feel open about talking about sex. Like that dirty old man’s stereotype, or the woman as a cougar, or even kind of infantilizing. We see two older adults and we’ll be like, oh, cute! They’re holding hands, right? Or when they do anything related to sex, we’re like, oh, that’s weird.”
She says these kinds of norms discourage discussion of healthy sexuality for older folks, which can hold them back when they may need to adapt their approach in bed.
Wilton helps clients navigate the changes in their bodies – and keep their sex lives thriving. “I’m always amazed at how people are surprised about talking about sex and older adults, like it’s always this great revelation,” she says. “If something was really good right now, why would you want it to stop?”
With some adjustments, she says, there’s no reason to leave sexual satisfaction in the past. Here’s some of her advice.
1. Slow your roll
One big piece of advice she offers is planning for more time for sex. As we age, our sexual response cycle – the time it takes to become aroused before and between sexual activity – becomes slower. Women especially may require more time and more touch beforehand to overcome a feeling of “my mind is there but my body’s not quite there yet,” Wilton says. And for people with medical conditions whose symptoms worsen at night, so she suggests moving sexual activity to the morning or afternoon.
2. Equip the bed
“Mobility is a huge issue,” when it comes to having comfortable sex, Wilton says, but today’s seniors have options. Props can help you get in a pain-free position. “There’s tons that exist on the market, benches and wedges and different kinds of things, but you can also just use the things [like pillows] that you have in your own home.” Even simply changing position can help.
A tip: assistive equipment like foam wedges marketed for sexual activity can often be found for much cheaper at medical supply retailers or on Amazon marketed as “back support.”
3. Check out the toy store, online
Sometimes great sex comes down to planning ahead. Make sure you have the supplies you need, says Wilton. “Something like lube is great for women as they get older.”
She also encourages her clients to experiment with different toys. “It is actually a really great experience to go into a sex shop, but it’s pretty cool that we can go online and look for things that, you know, maybe if we don’t feel comfortable or even live in a small town that doesn’t have great access to that kind of stuff,” she notes. Drug store chains generally carry lubricant, and many stock a few toys as well.
4. Open up to new ways of connecting
Wilton encourages clients to redefine what sex and intimacy looks like, and develop flexibility around that – try not to “get in your head about it” if something’s not working, she says. “Say your partner can’t get an erection or your partner doesn’t seem to be in the mood. It’s not getting like, ‘oh my goodness, they, they don’t wanna be with me. This is awful. We need to stop.’ ”
Instead she says, adapt and try something different. “Just snuggle instead, give each other a back massage or touch each other differently,” she suggests. “Just kind of give that time and space for things to move and flow a little bit more organically.”
5. Watch for side effects of your medications
When it comes to sex, Wilton recommends asking questions and advocating for yourself at the doctor’s office. “Things like diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson’s, the whole host of issues that we tend to see more commonly as people get older, often have either a sexual side effect based on the illness itself, or many of the medications may have some kind of side effect,” she says.
6. Expect the best
Despite challenges, Wilton says the sex you have when you’re older can be the best of your life.
“Sometimes we develop a bit more of a confidence for ourselves too when we get older. We’re like, ‘yeah, you know what? I am who I am and I like me.’ Most people, as they get a little bit older, they stop caring about some of those less important things, and I think that promotes a better sex life too.”
To learn more, Wilton recommends the books and website of senior sexuality advocate Joan Price, an advocate and educator for “ageless sexuality.”
Check out these interviews and stories for more advice and reflection about keeping the heat turned up as you age.
Lubrication and lots of communication: Navigating a new sexual life after menopause
Sex, friendship and aging: ‘It’s not all downhill from here’
How to talk about sex (and consent): 4 Lessons from the kink community