Why do most people consider topics relating to sexuality and intimacy as being taboo? Perhaps it relates back to how much your parents talked to you about sex, if at all. You might be worried about oversharing or it may feel embarrassing. Many people feel this subject should remain between partners. Having awareness of what this taboo does for our older adults who desire intimacy is crucial, as bias against the sexual lives of older adults is still an issue today. Hold onto your hats, it’s time to talk about intimacy and aging.
As we know, there is a rapidly growing number of older adults with greater life expectancy. Research shows that sexual interest and intimacy are sustained well into our older years. However, intimacy and aging is a topic that is rarely talked about, researched or even encouraged. Therefore, we must take a new approach and provide education, encourage open discussions and begin to support our older population and their desire for intimacy. Rita, participant in an older adult support group, quietly shares, “Who do I talk to about my sex life when I don’t even know how to talk about it?” Imagine how upsetting this would be! Many older adults feel that no one is comfortable talking about intimacy with them, including their adult children, caregivers, or even physicians. Sadly, they are (most of the time) right. A shift is clearly needed. By having a positive approach, we can support older adults and their sexual rights, promote sexual health and add to quality of life.
It is important to understand that intimacy can mean many different things. We can be intellectually intimate with others, emotionally close, spiritually close, and of course, sexually intimate. Sexual intimacy includes all types of physical closeness, not just sex. As we know, aging can come with physical and cognitive impairments. Therefore, discovering new and different ways of sharing closeness, comfort and intimacy is key in our older years. You may be surprised to know that even folks with dementia have a desire for intimacy. Memory impairment doesn’t always mean this diminishes.
Sharing intimacy can also include:
- Cuddling or hand holding
- Washing each other’s hair
- Massaging each other
- Sharing music with each other
- Writing love letters
I have worked in social services departments in nursing facilities. I continually found myself drawn toward the profound devotion spouses had toward one another, often with one partner living in the facility and the other coming to visit. I watched spouses help feed their loved ones if needed, read to them or join in on other activities. It was clear to me that most of the time, their level of intimacy was practically non-existent, due to a new living situation. While many were familiar with resident’s rights to have privacy, they did not know how this right could be exercised. Most of the time, access to privacy was limited, as residents often had a roommate. In care facilities, spouses often grieve this loss and many times, do not know how or where to ask for support.
Many clinicians have expressed the need for a national standard to demonstrate how care facilities could accommodate residents who are sexually active. Rights to sexuality and intimacy may be addressed but are not clearly stated. Over the years in my work with older adults, it has grown increasingly clear to me that a positive approach and education is needed. Physicians, caregivers, spouses, and care teams would greatly benefit as well as adult children who one day may find themselves in similar positions.
It is natural for everyone to have different levels of comfort in sharing and curiosity. It can be helpful to know that there are professionals that are skilled in gently opening up this conversation. We have coached some of our clients through exploring various ways to be intimate, and how to sustain a healthy sex life through aging. Intimacy does not need to end with age, a new diagnosis or changes in life circumstances. It is always OK to advocate for yourself, your needs, and your relationship.