Focus on sexual health

Sexuality in the aging population: Q&A from a certified sex therapist

The author of the second part of this 2-part series on sexuality in the aging population is a Certified Clinical Specialist in Psychiatric/Mental Health Nursing and an AASECT-Certified Diplomate of  Sex Therapy. She shares her clinical expertise on  this topic in a Q&A format. Readers can access the first part of the series here.

1. What do you see as the biggest myths about sexuality in the over-50 population?

The first myth is that couples are no longer interested in sex after they reach the half-century mark. The second myth is that men lose the ability to have erections, and the third is that women do not enjoy sex after 50. Here are the facts. Although some couples do put sex on the back burner after childrearing ends, others find that with that empty nest comes the opportunity for more sexual playfulness and less worry about being discovered by others in the home. Men do experience changes in erectile function as they age, but, even into their 70s, only about a third of men regularly have difficulty getting and keeping erections. Many women find they become more adventuresome and finally have the time to discover their own sexual potential after age 50. The biggest risk to good sex in later life is boredom.

2. How does sexuality change for women during the postmenopausal years?

The body’s sexual signals change as women age. Whereas younger women become lubricated as one of the signs of sexual arousal, older women do not get as wet. If women have not learned to notice other arousal signs, they may think that they are not turned on. A lot depends on whether a woman has had a surgically induced menopause and whether she is able to take replacement estrogen. Without hormonal support, vaginal tissue becomes thin and dry, causing vaginal containment (of a penis, a finger, a tongue, a dildo, or the like) to be painful. To ameliorate the situation, many older women find they enjoy using lubricating oils such as coconut oil as a part of their sexual warmup. Some women may also need to use a vaginal moisturizer if penetration is uncomfortable.

3. Which techniques do you advise older couples to incorporate into their sexual repertoire?

I coined the phrase true oral sex to describe the absolute need for couples to communicate with their mouths and not just with their bodies. This practice is especially true for older couples, whether in long-term relationships or in newer ones. In addition, the sexual experience during later years requires a true hands-on approach. The body’s biological system is not going to be activated just by thoughts and hormones now—t must be physically coaxed. And both partners need to make sure that they are breathing—holding one’s breath is the biggest single reason most women at any age do not get sexually aroused.

4. How did your practice change after the FDA approved Viagra in the late 90s?

I had practiced for two decades before erectile dysfunction (ED) medications were approved by the FDA. I have found these agents to be a huge boost to what I could offer to men because they are actual treatments for the physical problems men experience. The downside was that although many men gained benefits from Viagra, their spouse or partner was not necessarily interested in resuming sexual activity. So, negotiations needed to take place—prompting an even greater need for true oral sex.

5. Is there an age when many women stop having sex?

Studies have shown that women stop having sex when they can no longer find interesting partners. For some women, this situation may occur when they are in their 50s and for others, this situation never occurs. Is there an age when women should stop having sex? Unless there are medical contraindications, a woman can have sex as long as she wants to do so.

6. What barriers prevent intercourse in the older couple?

Declining or compromised state of health of one or both partners is the greatest risk to good sexual health. However, even if one or both partners have minor or major health problems, many older couples find that, even without intercourse, they can enjoy many other sexual activities—what I call outercourse. Outercourse encompasses all sexual activities other than penis-invagina intercourse, including finger, tongue, and/or vibrator  stimulation of the clitoris, for instance, as well as cuddling and caressing of any and all body parts.

7. How can couples maintain their sexuality if intercourse (or vaginal penetration of any kind) is not an option?

Sexuality is a state of both feeling and being sexual. Couples who maintain their sexual vitality for a long time share traits of having fun, being open minded, and flirting and “dating” even if they are a long-time couple. Such couples take the time to touch and caress each other, even if not for sexual warm-up per se. Many couples find that after 20 minutes of non-sexual caressing, they begin to feel sexual yearnings. Couples who experiment with direct stimulation of a flaccid penis, with or without assistance of an ED medication, sometimes find that this “wakes up” the nerves and helps start an erection, which can then lead to some form of sexplay. Many couples do not have intercourse or even orgasm as a goal, as might have been the case earlier in their lives, but find great satisfaction in exploring other options.

8. Which resources do you recommend for older women seeking answers to their questions about sexual dysfunction?

These women should get the best help available regarding their state of physical and sexual health, including advice on hormone replacement, urinary incontinence, and pelvic floor evaluation. They should read age-related materials about sexuality. My book, Assisted Loving: The Journey through Sexuality and Aging, is written in question-and-answer format. The book addresses actual concerns expressed by my readers over the 6 years during which I wrote a column on the topic.

9. How do you counsel postmenopausal women who are entering into a new romantic relationship?

Most older women have had lots of life experiences and have developed common sense about keeping themselves safe, but romance can throw all that knowledge out the door. I suggest that these women move forward using their heads and their intuition—f something doesn’t feel quite right, don’t go there. If they are using an online dating service, for example, they should have several people they trust in the loop so they don’t take unnecessary chances. Until they are 100% sure of a partner’s sexual history, they should not trust that the potential mate does not have a sexually transmitted infection. If the partner is a male, they should insist that he use a condom. These women should also get checkups themselves and tell their healthcare provider that they are beginning a new sexual relationship. They should also be encouraged to enjoy the experience! =

Ginger T. Manley is a Certified Clinical Specialist in Psychiatric/Mental Health Nursing and an AASECTCertified Diplomate of Sex Therapy. She retired in 2015 from her faculty position as Associate in Psychiatry, Division of Addictive Medicine, at Vanderbilt Medical School in Nashville, Tennessee. Her website is  gingermanley.com. The author states that she does not have a financial interest in or other relationship with any commercial product named in this article.

 

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