Older people still want sex – they should get the support they need

Back in 2001, the idea of older adults being sexually active was still very much a taboo. I had just landed my first job since completing my PhD: it was to manage a project looking at the role of sexual activity in the quality of life of older adults. The research was groundbreaking – certainly it had not been done before in the UK – and part of my role involved interviewing older adults about their sexual attitudes and behaviours. One of the first people I spoke to was a man in his 60s. He was fit and healthy but told me he was having erection problems. When I asked if he had sought help from his GP he said no. “I don’t know how much importance the doctor would attach to it,” he told me. “I mean getting to our age, he might say it’s about time you packed up.”

This story has stayed with me, because I heard firsthand the impact that sexual difficulty was having on his psychological wellbeing. Both he and his partner missed the pleasure and satisfaction this sexual act brought, yet he felt unable to seek help from his GP.

This story was the first of many. Older women told me they believed their sexual wellbeing needs were neglected by health professionals because of their age. This ranged from not being told when it was safe to resume sexual intercourse after a hysterectomy (when younger friends had been informed), to being advised that painful sex was “due to age” but without being offered any further help. One older man had been told by his GP that he had to want to have sex for his erection to work. As the man had not lost his libido, this showed a lack of understanding about sexual function and desire.

Stories like these have fuelled my passion to address the inequalities in healthcare that older adults often face. It is clear that they can receive low quality care based simply on their age. There are many reasons for this. From a societal perspective, sexual activity is a private topic and this influences who we are willing to talk to about it. There is also a stigma attached to sex and ageing, where traditional ideas about a sexless older age can influence our self-perceptions. Ageism can affect the attitudes and behaviours of health professionals and service providers too, which impacts the care and resources made available, while sexual health promotion campaigns focus predominantly on young people.

As such, there is a silence around the sexual health and wellbeing of older adults. Through our research we’ve heard the consistent message that there is no reliable, easy-to-find information on the sexual changes people can experience as they get older. This is why we have designed the website Age, Sex and You. It’s a public health resource offering free general information on the sexual issues older adults may face.

It provides evidence-based information to support healthy sexual ageing, and has been designed to save people trawling through hundreds of websites to find good advice. Existing sexual health websites are aimed at young people, or they feature alongside specific health conditions. As such they are not always relevant to older adults who don’t identify with their youth-focused appearance, and who may not require information about the sexual issues connected with health conditions such as stroke.

Age, Sex and You is the latest output from our work on the sexual rights of older people at the University of Sheffield. It is supported by the university in recognition of the extensive research we have carried out in this area, and it complements the training we deliver to health professionals. A large part of my role as reader in psychology and health is to prepare the healthcare workforce to support older adults in this area, which involves raising awareness and deepening our understanding of the issues that people face. Ageism is a contributing factor, but it is so entrenched it is often hard to see it.

Sexual activity and intimacy are normal parts of the life-course, and we shouldn’t treat them differently just because the person is older. Stigma and discrimination in sexual healthcare are often directed towards marginalised populations. We need to act now to improve the services we offer, so we can both support and promote the sexual rights of older adults.

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