Let’s talk about sex

aaTaylor-Jane Flynn is a Psychology graduate from Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, and is about to commence postgraduate training in Counselling Psychology at Glasgow Caledonian University. Alan Gow is an Associate Professor in Psychology at Heriot-Watt, and tweets @AlanJohnGow.

Their recently published Age & Ageing study examines how sexual behaviours are associated with quality of life in older adult: Taylor-Jane tells us more.

I found my inspiration for our recent Age & Ageing study while working as a Health Care Assistant caring for older adults. In recent years, many of those who opened up to me on a personal level expressed their need and want to have intimacy and companionship in their lives. However, sex has generally been seen as a taboo subject, especially among older adults.

Despite this, older adults shared in our conversations that they miss and want to engage in sexual behaviours, whether that be a kiss to intercourse, and for many these behaviours remained an important element in their life. From these anecdotal accounts, it became clear to me that just because someone is older does not mean sex and intimacy should be assumed to be less important to them, or indeed their well-being.

With a growing ageing population, it is encouraging to see that older adults are often experiencing good physical health in later life. We do need to ensure that all aspects of health are promoted and encouraged, including psychological well-being such as quality of life, and studying the many and varied determinants of these positive outcomes remains an important goal.

In deciding to study how sexual behaviours might be associated with quality of life, it was interesting to see how little research existed in older adults. There is an abundance of research identifying factors that predict better health and well-being in later life, but sex is one that is under researched. Previous work has, however, found that older adults continue to be sexually active and that sexual experiences have been associated with better health both physically and psychologically. In our small study, we wanted to explore not only how frequently older people engaged in a range of sexual behaviours, but also how important those behaviours were to them.

Naturally there may be more barriers that will prevent older adults in engaging in sexual behaviours despite having good overall health. These barriers could be anything from social, biological or physical. An important message is that despite such barriers, we as a society perhaps need to change our attitudes so that the taboo of sex in later life is reduced, and where necessary, ensure that there is support to help those older adults who value and benefit from their sexual lives to remain sexually active. It is also important that older generations are encouraged to become more open and comfortable in talking about their sexual needs and wants. For many, this is an embarrassing topic, especially if they are experiencing problems such as erectile dysfunction or inability to orgasm. With more treatments available for these issues than previously, an openness and awareness about sex and sexuality in later life would hopefully ensure that many more benefit from these.

For many older adults, help with overcoming some of these barriers could have a positive impact on their quality of life whether it helps them remain sexually active once a week or once a month, or even less frequently. It could be the case that as we age quality is more important than quantity and that perhaps we shouldn’t focus on how often older adults engage in sexual behaviours but measure the level of significance and importance of each sexual experience. Our study did ask older adults how often they engaged in sexual behaviours but also the importance of each sexual behaviour. Our results suggested that how often older adults engaged in sexual behaviours was positively associated with the quality of their social relationships. This likely suggests that those who frequently engage in sexual behaviours were those who also had a sexual partner accessible to them. Interestingly, the importance of these sexual behaviours was found to be positively associated with their psychological quality of life. This supports the idea that older adults see sexual experiences as an important element to their psychological well-being, whereas the frequency of these sexual behaviours may be less relevant. Our study touched on these issues of frequency versus importance of sexual behaviours in older adults, and it is something that we hope future research will study in more detail.

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