Getting Elder Sex Out of the Closet
Monday, 15 August 2016
One of the pleasures of writing this blog for so many years - more than a dozen so far - is watching how issues affecting elders sometimes get better.
When I began doing this, the general attitude toward old people having sex was “ick” and in fact, nursing, assisted living and other care homes had rules against sex between residents - even, sometimes, married couples.
Those rules have been widely relaxed in recent years, but I recently ran across this report about how such personal rights of residents in some assisted living residences are restricted:
”...these facilities share a mission of providing a homelike environment that emphasizes consumer choice, autonomy, privacy and control” reports Medical News Today of the research done in several care homes in Georgia...
“The study found that staff and administrators affirmed that residents had rights to sexual and intimate behavior, but they provided justifications for exceptions and engaged in strategies that created an environment of surveillance, which discouraged and prevented sexual and intimate behavior.”
Contrast that to a well-known care home in New York City, that has had a rational, life-giving, respectful attitude toward the sexual desires of its residents for more than 20 years. As Bloomberg News reported it in 2013:
”'The nurse was frantic,” as Gruley relates the story. “She’d just seen two elderly people having sex in a room at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale, New York. She asked Daniel A. Reingold, then the home’s executive vice president, what she should do.
“'Tiptoe out and close the door so you don’t disturb them,' he told her.
“In 1995, the home adopted a four-page policy - considered the first of its kind - stating that residents 'have the right to seek out and engage in sexual expression,' including 'words, gestures, movements or activities which appear motivated by the desire for sexual gratification.'”
Notwithstanding complications in such a policy that must be addressed for people with varying degrees of cognitive difficulty, having anything less than a policy closely resembling the one at the Hebrew Home not only breaches elders' human rights, it infantilizes them.
It takes a long time for long-held beliefs to change (see civil rights, women's rights, religious bigotry, etc. etc.) and although I can't be sure, reports of repression of sexual activity in assisted living seems to be declining fairly quickly now.
A recent story in The New York Times reveals that the Hebrew Home has further expanded its liberal attitude toward sex among residents:
”The Hebrew Home has stepped up efforts to help residents looking for relationships. Staff members have organized a happy hour and a senior prom, and started a dating service, called G-Date, for Grandparent Date. Currently, about 40 of the 870 residents are involved in a relationship.”
You can read the Hebrew Home's now six-page Residents Sexual Rights policies and procedures here [pdf].
The Hebrew Home has been ahead of many others on the issue of residents' sexual rights but stories like this one about a recently released research study of 6,800 people age 50 to 89, from Coventry University in the U.K., can help change even more minds:
”In our analysis, we took into account many factors that might influence either sexual activity or cognition – age, education, wealth, levels of physical activity, cohabiting status, general health, depression, loneliness and quality of life.
“Even after adjusting for all of these factors statistically, we established that there is indeed an association between sexual activity and higher scores on tests of cognitive function in people over the age of 50 years.”
Obviously, the next question is whether sex improves brain power or vice versa. Either way, it couldn't be a bad thing.
Sometimes it appears that the business and creative communities are ahead of science. There is a growing number of movies about love between old people, including sex scenes. I wrote about some of them last year that you can find it here.
The website Stitch has been helping elders find love - or just companionship and new friends - for two years now, and there is a movie from 2015, The Age of Love, about an evening of speed dating that was held in Rochester, New York, exclusively for people age 70 to 90. As the producers explain:
”Faced with feelings 'even our own kids never ask about,' each dater’s intimate confessions blend with revealing vérité to shed light on the intense and complex feelings that still lurk behind wrinkled skin and thinning hair.”
Here is the trailer:
The Age of Love is not playing in theaters but there is a list of about two dozen screenings in cities throughout the U.S. at the film's website along with a page where you can find out how to host a screening in your area.
Undoubtedly, there are young people who still don't want to know anything at all about old people having sex (ewww!) and that's fine. They will be glad when they're our age that our generation helped make it okay for them to be sexy.
Wow, great to see this as a topic, thanks! Americans find SO much in life "icky"! Sex for elders, sex for gays, sex for transgenders, sex for those with disabilities. As a teenager working in a "home" for those with mental disabilities, I remember a mildly disabled man and woman who loved each other and were never, never allowed to be alone. So wrong!
Some wise person said, "The tragedy of old age is not that one is old, but that one is young."
Posted by: Salinda Dahl | Monday, 15 August 2016 at 08:13 AM
Thank you for this post, Ronni. U.S. so puritanical and unfortunately I have some of that in me, i.e. I grew up with the unspoken warning that if I was too free with my sexual favors, I would end up disrespected or, worse, in the gutter someplace. So throughout my life has been this underlying association between sex and sense of self worth. At the ripe old age of 64 and a widow still not ready to disappear, I am trying to disengage with that association and permit myself a sense of self-worth so that I can freely engage in sex and love and companionship! And oh how I wish that I had that sense of self worth when I was younger, but I think many of us are caught up, including the society, so it is very difficult to move outside of that paradigm.
Posted by: Yvonne behrens | Monday, 15 August 2016 at 09:28 AM
We live in a sex obsessed society no matter the age. It leaves those who are not that interested in it, left to feeling that there is something wrong with them. This is equally unspoken as is elder sex for those who ARE interested.
Posted by: Mary | Monday, 15 August 2016 at 10:24 AM
My unofficial take on Elder sex from various friends---
Most older men want sex/Some older women do, too
Some older men don't want sex/Most older women don't, either
The "why" and "why not" make really interesting conversations--
Posted by: victoria | Monday, 15 August 2016 at 10:45 AM
Death sounds better than living in a home with a bunch of arbitrary rules imposed by someone else. But if the worst should happen, I hope there's something like a Hebrew Home around here.
Posted by: PiedType | Monday, 15 August 2016 at 10:47 AM
My late widowed Mother had a beautiful assisted living apartment over looking the ocean in Maine. I began to see, when I visited her, she and a lovely man holding hands while ocean surf watching. The internal me thought "say what"??? They enjoyed meals together and other offered activities. I asked her about it and all she said was we enjoy each others company. Queries to the staff brought the same answer. The gentleman eventually asked my Mother to marry....my second " say what"???? They were both in their early 80's. My folks never interfered in my private life and I wasn't going to in this situation either. I saw what the relationship brought to her life and I was happy to see that. Fast forward a little, the gentleman asked my official permission to marry. Two weeks after that coversation, I showed up to visit and he was gone. His family didn't approve and moved him out in the dark of night. They both had all their wits intact, knew what they needed and wanted and it became a role reversal where the "adult children" took away his voice and choice. Sex never came up...I never asked, not my business, as my sex life was never hers either -:)
Posted by: Kate R | Monday, 15 August 2016 at 12:48 PM
Oh Kate R., what a cruel thing to do to a loving couple. I strongly suspect that the family was more concerned with their inheritance than with their father's happiness. It makes me sad that elders are sometimes abused mentally and physically by those who are supposed to love and care for them.
The oldest of us were infected with the Puritan culture when we were too young to know better. Sex was never mentioned in my presence when I was a child and I was an innocent. The sub-message was that sex was not supposed to be enjoyed; only used for procreation. And it still infects some of us to this day.
I am glad that the Puritan influence changed with the cultural revolution and the remaining weeds from the strict and wrong headed Puritan beliefs must be stamped out.
The Puritan attitude about sex still infects society; nowhere is it more prevalent than in the attitudes of elders enjoying sex.
Posted by: Darlene | Monday, 15 August 2016 at 02:57 PM
Agree with everyone above, especially Kate R.
Posted by: doctafill | Monday, 15 August 2016 at 04:10 PM
Yes Darlene it was all about the $$. He was quite well to do and my Mother was fine financially...so no inheritances were going to be changed. My mother and he were going to stay in the same assisted care but move to a larger apt. I already had that in the works. They both had long marriages 60+ years and I was delighted to see the happy glint in my Mother's eyes. He was someone special just for her and vice a versa. I totally fault his adult children (who rarely visited)for taking their Father's voice from him. Whatever years each had remaining to share was stolen by greedy, selfish, insensitive adult children. That spark left my Mother's eyes and for that I will always be sad. She lived well into her 90's and I think about what those years together could have been.
Posted by: Kate R | Monday, 15 August 2016 at 04:52 PM
Oh Kate that's soo sad !! I feel it must have broke their hearts !! Did they ever talk to each other again?
Posted by: Carole D | Tuesday, 16 August 2016 at 02:25 AM
The staff at the assisted care were very sympathetic, but due to privacy laws, they wouldn't give us his address or phone number. He was taken out of state. It was a situation similar to many in Florida, where parents retired to Florida and no family lived in the state. Any sort of that information never came up in any of my conversations with him nor between he and my Mother. It wasn't an issue because they both lived in same facility and no one ever thought that would change. None of his adult children ever attempted to connect with me or my Mother to discuss the issue (marriage). I never knew the last names of his children (married daughters)to try to connect with. When he was gone he was gone.
Posted by: Kate R | Tuesday, 16 August 2016 at 07:39 AM
Whoever thought that very-red-state Kansas would be in the vanguard?
"When I began doing this, the general attitude toward old people having sex was “ick” and in fact, nursing, assisted living and other care homes had rules against sex between residents - even, sometimes, married couples."
In 2004, when I trained to become a State-certified ombudsman to a nursing home, it was official policy to recognize the right of nursing home residents to carry on their private affairs (pun intended) as long as they were in a position to give consent. We were to help assure that the residents' rights were observed by the nursing home staff.
Posted by: Cop Car | Tuesday, 16 August 2016 at 12:09 PM
Great topic!! In my research, I've seen that those who age face various stigmas in society, but one of the biggest one is in sexuality!! One of the main points that struck me was the policies surrounding the idea that having a relationships as we age is okay, regardless of what society says. I've found in my research that individuals who internalize sexual beliefs about ageing stigmas may experience a breakdown in their sexual functioning. The fact that the stigmas of society are saying that expressing yourself as a consenting adult is wrong truly does affect individuals!
Posted by: Emily | Sunday, 23 October 2016 at 01:15 PM