Research suggests that a growing number of seniors continue to be sexually active, and in doing so, they stay healthier and happier. Although seniors are often hesitant to discuss intimate issues with their doctors, a new study suggests that older adults have been turning to online communities to get the answers and support they need from one another.
Sexual activity among older adults is commonplace—more than half of men and one third of women in their 70s, some married and some not, reported having sex at least twice a month in a 2015 study published in Archives of Sexual Behavior. (Scientific American Mind is part of Springer Nature.) But it can be complicated. Medical conditions that arise with advancing age, such as diabetes and heart disease, can affect sex drive and performance. Widows and widowers who start dating again later in life may not know how to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases or how to approach a new partner. Making matters worse, ageist stereotypes—such as the idea that seniors are “too old for sex”—can make it difficult for older adults to get answers.
A 2011 review of the research literature concluded that not only do older adults seldom raise questions about sex with their physicians but that their doctors are hesitant to bring up the topic. “The findings, literature and current media suggest that health care providers and staff in seniors' residential facilities and nursing homes themselves often ignore their clients' and residents' sexual health, needs and rights,” explains Liza Berdychevsky, a social scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
In light of this concerning trend, Berdychevsky and her colleague Galit Nimrod, a communications researcher at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, explored whether seniors get any sexual support from online forums. After reviewing nearly 700,000 messages posted in the span of a year to an international collection of online senior communities, they found approximately 2,500 posts dedicated to the discussion of sexual issues. Although that is less than 0.4 percent of all posts, some of these threads were hugely popular, with thousands of views, suggesting that a number of community members who were not participating in the discussions were nonetheless reading them. The researchers also saw evidence to suggest that these posts helped to answer users' questions and make them feel more comfortable about their evolving sexuality, according to a paper they published in June in the Journal of Leisure Research.
“The communities offer their members reassurance that they are not alone and that whatever they experience is faced by many others in their age group,” Berdychevsky says, and the online forums provide “a channel for sharing their difficulties, gaining firsthand knowledge and exchanging advice.” She and other investigators continue to emphasize the importance of better face-to-face communication about sex, especially in health care settings. Yet as more and more older adults around the world gain access to the Internet, their sex lives—and, it follows, general well-being—are better for it.