Not fade away: Older Canadians are having more sex than ever
Updated: January 7, 2019
When Don and Karen met 20 years ago in their mid-40s, they never thought they would still be having sex into their 60s.
“Back then, 60 was ancient,” says Karen, now 66.
“I didn’t think I would be alive,” says Don, 67.
Twenty years later, though, the couple, who asked their that real names not be used, have embarked on a quest to keep their sexual relationship going as long as they can.
“At 65, you have to decide if you want to stay sexually active, or if you want to fade away. You have to make it a conscious decision to make it what it used to be,” Don says.
Christina, a 58-year old retired occupational therapist, has been in a relationship with her husband since they met in university in 1979. Now they have two knee replacements and the occasional sore hip, but still search out soft places to be intimate and experiment with sex toys.
“I like touching and kissing. That has not changed,” she says. Christina also asked that her real name not be used.
“I think what I noticed amongst other people our age is their kids are grown up, so they are ready to try new things. They are still afraid of what people will say, so it’s still a secret. But they are willing to admit they are sexually active and curious. In a way, they are newbies. I think my husband and I were curious from the time we met and since we met at university far away from our family and friends, there was no judgement.”
As more and more baby boomers enter their senior years, it appears they are determined not to go gentle into that good night.
When Ottawa sex therapist Sue McGarvie gave a talk on at the Ottawa Council on Aging — it was called Put a Twinkle in Your Wrinkle — it attracted about 150 seniors.
There has been a paradigm shift in seniors and their attitudes toward sex, says McGarvie. “We have to technology to make you as sexual as you want. If there is a will, there is a way to do it,” she says. “I don’t want to go quietly into the night, and I don’t know a lot of people who do.”
Life expectancy is on the rise. Between 1921 and 2005, Canadians gained about 20 years of average life expectancy to about 78 years for man and almost 83 years for a woman. By 2031, the average life expectancy could rise to 81.9 for men and 86 for women. And for many, it means they will be having sex for longer.
Senior sex has been having a cultural moment for more than a decade. In 2003, Jane Juska, A divorced California teacher who hadn’t dated in 30 years, placed an ad in the The New York Review of Books “Before I turn 67 — next March — I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like.”
Her memoir, A Round-Heeled Woman: My Late-Life Adventures in Sex and Romance, told the tale of the adventures that followed. Juska received 63 replies from men ranging in age from the octogenarian who stole her champagne flutes to a “very old” 32-year-old who broke her heart when he married a younger lover. The memoir was adapted into a play in 2010 and Juska wrote a followup book in 2012 called Unaccompanied Women: Late-Life Adventures in Love, Sex and Real Estate. Juska died in October 2017 in a care facility.
In 2008, the British Medical Journal published data based on interviews with 1,500 Swedes over the age of 70 between 1970 and 2000. The study found that more seniors reported having sex in the latter years of the study than in the beginning. Among married men, for example, 68 per cent said they were having sex, compared to 52 per cent in 1971.
Among the married women, 56 per cent said they were having sex, compared to 38 per cent in the 1970s, while 54 per cent of the single men and 12 per cent of the women reported having sex, compared to 30 per cent of men and less than one per cent of women in the 1970s. They also reported having sex more frequently — more than a quarter said they having sex once or more a week in 2000 compared to only about 10 per cent in the 1970s. The study did not report the reason for the shift, but it’s likely that history played a role.
According to the Pew Research Center in the U.S., online dating among seniors 55 to 64 years old increased significantly between 2013, when six per cent of people in that age bracket reported using a dating website or mobile app, to 12 per cent in 2015. There are even sites geared specifically to the over-50 crowd, including SeniorPeopleMeet.com, SeniorMatch.ca and Stitch.com and OurTime.com., which has almost nine million monthly visitors.
A 2012 AARP study of 1,000 people 50 and older found that while almost half of those who used internet dating sites were looking for a serious relationship, about a quarter wanted friendship or companionship and 14 per cent were looking for casual dating.
French psychotherapist Marie de Hennezel was 71 when her book, A Frenchwoman’s Guide to Sex, was released in 2017. “In the sexuality of youth, which is open, you have to be fast and strong. This is contrary to what is going on with older people — to be slow and tender, to play between distance and closeness, trying to find the good rhythm and letting the imagination do the rest. I think it’s full of discoveries,” she said in an interview last year.
But research into sexual activity in older adults has produced inconsistent results, says a review of 57 research papers continued sexual activity in adults over 60. One of the problems is a need for a more comprehensive approach to studying sex in older adults including “expanding the definition to include non-coital sexual behaviours” to get a fuller picture of who’s doing what.
The baby boomers who changed ideas about sex are moving into their senior years, says Dr. Elke Reissing, one of the authors of the paper, published in 2016 in the journal Sexual Medical Reviews.
Boomers changed attitudes toward sex outside marriage, said Reissing, director of the Human Sexuality Research Laboratory and a psychology professor at the University of Ottawa. They could have sex without procreation. They could have sex recreationally. They could have sex with the help of pharmaceutical intervention.
“When you think of baby boomers, they were the revolutionaries. Sexuality has been special to them, and they want to maintain that ability. Even just the idea that they could be sexual if they choose.”
People don’t just step over the threshold of middle age into decrepitude one day. One of the problems is that “older people” are lumped into one monolithic category. Reissing prefers to group people into the “young old” — those 55 to 65 — the “old” -— 65 to 75 — and the “old old” — 75-plus.
“There is so much that is different between a 60-year-old and an 85-year old,” she said. “But it’s surprising that sometimes you can find an 80-year-old who is so much more sex-positive than a 60-year-old.”
Aging is a slow process, and sex with aging can be managed with the right attitude and interventions, said McGarvie, who estimates that by the time people 65, about half are not being sexual. It doesn’t mean they’re not interested in sex, she says.
Older people have to use it or lose it, she says. “I think men are still interested in women. Asking anyone who works in a nursing home. They’re still looking down your top.”
McGarvie leads a group she calls the “ducklings.” The group might visit a dominatrix’s dungeon in Kanata, or sign up for a boudoir photo shoot. “They are trying not to turn into their parents,” she says.
“You have to have the attitude that you want to keep things going,” Don says.
The 60s are a good time of life, says Karen. “We’re looking at health problems down the road. We might as well be enjoying this as long as we can. Hopefully, we’ll be enjoying it for a really long time.”
But people who want to continue having a sex life also have to accept that the supply-and-demand landscape of sex changes, and they have to be realistic abut the marketplace, says McGarvie. Older men looking for younger women can do that, and older women often have success with younger men.
“Women are till looking for the ‘male unicorn,’ the man who wants an exclusive, monogamous relationship. I know a lot of stand-up guys who are not adverse to falling in love again, but they don’t want to be tied down. If you are willing to colour outside the lines, there’s lots of sex to be had,” she says.
The expectation that sex will be the same as it ever was is also likely not possible to fulfill.
“You have to roll with the fact that sex is not always intercourse; it changes. You have to work with it, McGarvie says. “If you want sex you can still have it, with integrity, with friendship. … I tell people to throw their expectations out the window. … Sometimes you have to change your expectations. As long as it’s safe and consensual.”
The biggest predictor of having an active and satisfying sex life in later years is having an active and satisfying sex life in adult years, says Reissing, who has a PhD student who is looking into the preparedness of long-term care homes to receive baby boomers who want to remain sexually expressive.
“We want people to have full rights in a long-term care facility. They can be sexually active and show affection.”
She believes baby boomers truly are different from previous generations, and history is a a major reason why. They lived through a time when sexual activity could be treated as recreational. Heterosexuals could explore their sexuality without concern that sex would result in a baby. There was increasing acceptance of non-heterosexual sex.
“If you have a rigid script, you have never learned that it’s OK to do other things that are different.”
It’s a third marriage for Karen and a second for Don. They met on an early online dating site in 1998. As time went by, Karen had health problems and Don suffered from erectile dysfunction and sex became sporadic. After seeking help, they agree that having sex keeps them young, But they have to work at it.
“There’s a lot more foreplay than there used to be,” says Karen.
Don has three children. Two of them would think it was great that he was still having sex. “One would be shocked,” he says.
He doesn’t care what other people think. “At our age, you can identify which couples are active and which aren’t. It shows in how they act in public. It’s visible in their interactions with each other. If you mention that you went on a date night and you get a weird look, you know they’re not active.”