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Sex and the Elderly


How do the elderly deal with their sexual problems? And what really helps? A recent study at Oregon State University sought to find out and emerged with several unexpected answers.

The most striking finding was that fewer than half the people in the study discussed their sexual problems with their doctor. And those who did experienced no improvement in their well being.

But the most useful finding was that elderly men who discussed their sexual problems with both their partner and their friends were happier and less depressed because they did so.

Hirayama also points out that the results seen with elderly men contradict some broadly-accepted social truisms: that men do not have confidants and have a minimal or non-existent social network.

Ryo Hirayama, who headed the study, expressed surprise at the minimal role played by doctors: "This was our most unexpected outcome. Older adults are advised to talk to their doctors about sexual health issues, but not all people do so and talking with a physician is not as helpful as you might expect."

Hirayama also points out that the results seen with elderly men contradict some broadly-accepted social truisms: that men do not have confidants and have a minimal or non-existent social network. The results not only show the error of this view, they emphasize the importance of male social interaction, particularly in later life.

The findings for elderly women were somewhat different. Women with high levels of sexual stress who confided about this with their friends reported lower happiness. And confiding in their partner neither lowered depression nor improved happiness. The researchers are not sure what to make of these findings. Apparently, the women in the study did not find talk to be the key to sexual happiness.

The study looked at 861 people aged 57-85 who were either married or had an intimate partner and reported having at least one sexual problem. Types of sexual problems reported included lack of interest in sex, inability to climax, physical pain during sex and maintaining an erection. Respondents were asked to rate the severity of their problems on a scale of one to three. Well-being was measured using typical scales for depression and happiness.

Alexis Walker, a co-author of the study who has done gerontology research for decades, stresses the importance of partners keeping their lines of communication open no matter how serious their problems may become. While citing that the operative rule for sex and aging is "use it or lose it," Walker also notes that aging itself can bring along its own set of sexual problems. When these defy solution, it may help for couples to focus more on all the other activities that they do enjoy performing together.

An advance access article detailing the study was published online by the Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences on April 5, 2010. The article will also appear in a future issue of the journal.

Ryo Hirayama is a doctoral student in Oregon State University's Department of Human Development and Family Sciences.

Alexis Walker is a professor and the JoAnne L. Petersen Chair in Gerontology and Family Studies at OSU.

May 26, 2010


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