Sex and the Senior Patient
The sex lives of older people have received a lot of attention recently. From the Netflix sitcom Grace and Frankie, which stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin (both in their 70s) and does not shy away from the issue of sex, to the Channel 4 series that focused on “love and sex when we're over 60”, it seems there is no escaping the message that older adults have and enjoy sex.
Indeed, five years ago the World Health Organisation declared sexual health to be important across the lifespan. And since the early 2000s governing bodies have promoted sexual activity as good for the health and well-being of older adults. The UK's largest sexual health study, the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (NATSAL), has, for the very first time in its 25-year history, included adults aged 60 and older. And the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) which began in 2002 has, also for the first time, included questions about sex. These studies follow the growing number of international studies that have explored the frequency of sexual activity among older adults, including, for example Spain, North America, Australia and Sweden.
Clearly, there has been a societal shift in attitudes towards sexuality and ageing which, in my view, is a step in the right direction. It enables us to move away from the taboo that surrounds sex after the age of 60 and the negative stereotyping of the sexuality of older adults. But, in spite of this increased recognition and visibility, there is consistent evidence that older adults tend not to seek help when they have a concern about sex and also that doctors are unlikely to ask their older patients about it.