Intimacy in Later Life

intimacy older couple Intimacy refers to a close feeling shared between two people, based on familiarity with the other person. It includes emotional, social (based on shared experiences), and physical intimacy (eg, touching, cuddling, sexual activity). Relationships of all types help us to stay fulfilled as people, throughout the lifespan.

Life events, roles and priorities impact our relationships. We know that loneliness and isolation disproportionately affect older adults. Some of the reasons behind this may include physical isolation due to limited mobility or poor health, loss of relationships due to death (spouse, friends and even available companions in the age group), and societal structure and beliefs about older adults. Intimacy can help prevent depression and improve self-esteem and physical health.

Many sexual myths and stereotypes work against older people and challenge whether the expression of sexuality in old age is appropriate. Despite studies reporting that older people can be potentially sexually active into later life, society still continues to devalue older people’s sexuality. Sexuality is still considered the province of youth and studies show this influences older adults’ own feelings of attractiveness and sexuality.

Statistics: Sexuality and Intimacy in Later Life

  • The level of sexual interest and activity among people over the age of 65 is as diverse as the individuals who make up that population.
  • A survey of married men and women showed that 87% of married men and 89% of married women in the 60-64 age range are sexually active. Those numbers drop with advancing years, but 29% of men and 25% of women over the age of 80 are still sexually active.
  • The desire for intimacy does not decrease with age, and there is no age at which intimacy, including physical intimacy, is inappropriate. However, the disorders and emotional changes that often occur with aging can interfere with developing and maintaining an intimate relationship. Aging can also change the way intimacy is expressed.

Privacy Issues and Forming Romantic Relationships in Later Life

Many past studies exposed the  limited insights and vague understanding of residential care facility staff in handling older residents’ sexual acts – often construing sexual behaviors as behavioral problems, rather than elders’ expressions for love and intimacy. Studies done in the late 1980s and early 90s found that older people’s sexual expressions were met with apprehension, disapproval, judged as misbehavior, and punished using restraints or segregation. It was not unusual for staff to feel uncomfortable, and to react by ignoring the expressions.

Things have improved somewhat and there are facilities doing some groundbreaking work and advocacy in this area, such as the Hebrew Home of Riverdale in New York. Today, facilities may address these concerns through staff training and policies, but issues remain and it’s important to ask:

  • How does a care facility balance the need for safety/supervision in group settings with the reality that older adults do continue to be sexual human beings with a need for intimacy and private time?
  • What are specific ways a facility can handle consenting adults’ sexual behavior in the group-like setting of a facility? What staff training is needed?

Intimacy, and in particular physical intimacy, in later life may be affected by: stereotypes and societal beliefs, loss of partner, gender-ratio imbalance (more women than men), disorders and age-related changes to libido and sexual function (and reluctance to discuss these with health practitioners), lack of privacy, lack of opportunities to form and engage in new relationships and changing forms of intimacy (and potential partner discrepancy in these expectations).

Some of these issues are being addressed more openly today and we encourage a continued dialogue about the ways in which we can foster health relationships throughout the lifespan and break down isolation and loneliness. Our goal is to ensure that we do not let our clients’ age, disease, or disability affect their quality of life. This requires a holistic view of the person to support all aspects of what is important to him/her. Supportive services can make a big difference in little ways, from ensuring the person can maintain personal hygiene and feel good about he/she looks to providing transportation and concierge support to allow elders to continue with a wide array of favorite activities in the community.

Family Conflicts and Concerns

Unfortunately, family members may hold some of these societal perceptions about aging as well, or their personal feelings may impact Mom or Dad’s new relationships. An adult child may be grieving for the loss of one parent and become upset when the living parent forms a new romantic attachment. Adult children sometimes worry that Mom or Dad is being taken advantage of or suspect the partner’s intentions. At these times, it may be helpful to talk to an outside party about your feelings, to work through them and assess whether there are some legitimate concerns (and how to address them). Our Aging Wisely care managers can help with a consultation, family mediation, assessments and more!

This month, EasyLiving and Aging Wisely are co-sponsoring The Age of Love movie screening with Mease Manor. This documentary follows seniors through a speed dating experience and explores further these themes of relationships, intimacy and our perceptions of aging. Join us!