If stereotypes are known to condition behavior in older adults, could movie portrayals of older adult sexuality demonstrate that intimate relationships are a normal part of growing older? Conversely, are they more likely to reinforce asexuality with age? This study examines the opinions of older viewers of six movies portraying older adult intimate relationships, to determine if they could identify with the characters and their behaviors. Viewers felt the movies were authentic to aging people and intimate relationships, but cohorts differed in the ways viewers wished to see sexuality demonstrated, with the oldest viewers wanting only an illusion, i.e., “no hopping in bed.”
older adult sexuality, movie sexuality, intimate relationships, aging stereotypes
Age is a social construct. People are, essentially, what other people think they are. That is why, when older people are cued with negative stereotypes of aging, they perform more poorly on cognitive and physical tests (Barber, 2017; Levy, 2003). Likewise, when they see images of older people doing well on tasks prior to taking a cognitive exam, they will perform better. Images of what aging is meant to be shape the personal trajectory of older adult aging.
Is it because social cuing related to older adult sexuality tends to be negative that many older adults fail to see themselves as sexual beings? Little was known until recently about older adults and sexual expression. Sexuality studies were limited to people younger than age 50, which is telling in itself. More recent studies indicate that plenty of older adults older than age 60 are still having intercourse (Lindau et al., 2007, Solway, et al., 2018) and plenty more would like to (if only they could find a partner).
Older people have differing notions on what behaviors are associated with intimate relationships. Many state that sexual intercourse loses its desirability but the need for affection and touch increases as they grow older (Doll, 2012).
Five years ago, I asked 10 older adults to watch films about older adults who were in long-standing relationships to help me write a review of movies for The Gerontologist (Doll, 2017). It was great fun as well as enlightening, but I felt that the conversations held following the films might have been less forthcoming due to discomfort when talking about sex among peers. I wanted a repeat: First to see if movies had changed in that time, and then to provide a survey for anonymous review.
The purpose of this study was to measure how participants viewed the intimacy of relationships between older people in film. Was it realistic? Did the directors and writers get it right? Were these authentic representations of what our viewers might think was possible in their own lives? Did the representations follow stereotypes or bend them? Torbjörn Bildtgårt’s (2000) “rules” of older adult sexuality in film were overlaid with the movies watched to see if they conformed or if it was possible that filmmakers were attempting to break some of these rules.
As before I went to a local continuing care retirement home and recruited for the study. While I had no trouble finding 10 people for my previous study, I found resistance this time around. I believe it was because I used the phrase “intimate relationships” in my recruitment brochure. When one woman texted me that she didn’t want to be involved in “that activity” I began to wonder. My concern was later validated by some of my participants who said that people thought I was planning to show “dirty movies.”
The final sample was 11 participants—6 from the retirement community and 5 people who watched the films from home. Ages ranged from 70 to 91. Five were men.
How did participants view the intimacy of relationships between older people in film?
Movies were shown twice a week for three weeks at the retirement community. A brief discussion was held following the film in which I took notes about the first impressions held by participants. A link was given to both home and retirement community viewers for a survey. Questions included comfort level with the film, how authentically older adult intimate relationships were portrayed, and what the viewer would have liked the director to have done differently.
The six films were selected from a Google search term “films about older adult intimacy or sexuality.” The range of age of the directors was 36 to 74, with an average age of 52. Age of the writers of the movies or the books from which the movies were made also averaged 52, with the youngest writer being 36. Most of the films, excepting The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, were made within the last few years.
Bildtgårt’s (2000) rules for older adult sexuality on screen were used with each of the films to see if they conformed or if there were any changes in film in the last 20 years. These rules included:
- Sexual relationships have to be affectionate, depicting the emotional side of relationships.
- Sex, if depicted at all, is merely an aside.
- Elderly people who are sexually active have to be well-preserved.
- Elderly people who are sexually active have to be lively.
- Elderly people who are sexually active have to conform to gendered expectations. For example, men are meant to be dominant.
- Sexually active elderly people have to be single.
It should be noted that our sample size was too small to make sweeping generalizations, but some interesting points were highlighted. Participants found the films’ portrayals of aging and intimate relationships among older adults to have been authentic and believable. There was a difference by age in those perceptions. The oldest of the viewers thought that the “old people” in some of the films were not representative of them, with some saying, “60-year-old actors are NOT old.” While Robert Redford and Jane Fonda were nearly 80 when they filmed Our Souls at Night, according to my study participants, they looked “too good.”
Note: The material in quotes below is taken verbatim from the study.
The films watched and their analysis follows:
- Once Again: This film was Indian with subtitles and concerned a romantic entanglement between a widowed restaurant owner/cook and the businessman who had met her when he began ordering take-out. Our viewers struggled to relate, not being aware of cultural differences but suggesting the premise was not believable because weren’t widows supposed to throw themselves on funeral pyres? While viewers could not relate to the culture or the age (the lead male actor, Neera Kahi, was 50, and the lead female actor, Shefal Shah, was 45, the youngest in the films watched), they loved that there was no sex. The romantic innuendo in the film reminded them of American films from the ’40s and ’50s.
- The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: A group of older pensioners from England decide to try an inexpensive alternative to an old age home, located in India. We showed this movie the same week that we had shown Once Again and many of us appreciated seeing a second viewpoint of Indian culture. One person wrote: “I enjoyed this film juxtaposed against the film Once Again. It turned the two narratives inside out: native vs expatriate. It made the visual images clash wonderfully. I like the political, social questions that the two films brought up.”
This was a second or third viewing for many of our audience and they loved the film. One reported that the character development could have been better but probably not in 90 minutes. Others said that the intimate relationships were authentically portrayed, especially mentioning the judge who was in India to find his lost male lover. It was interesting to me that no one mentioned the one older man who was hoping to have sex with as many women as possible as an unbelievable character.
- The Wife: This academy award–winning film portrays the agonies of a wife who watches her husband take the credit for the life she made possible for him. This movie stirred the strongest sentiments, especially angst over the way the husband failed in giving his wife the recognition she deserved. Our viewers were so caught up in the injustices that they had less to say about the intimacy of the relationship.
One viewer said, “I can only say at times I could see my husband’s and my marriage very clearly. (The couple) acted to the end the place in bed they’d made for themselves. They knew their roles….”
Another said, “the arguments were authentic. Also the way they made up… . The fact that in midst of a violent fight they reconnected after learning about their grandchild was born… .”
And yet another commented on the relationship: “It seemed to me that the anger that The Wife felt toward her husband was right on, but she needed to look in the mirror as they were both playing the lie to get what they wanted. My point being at least in my marriage we struggled to use each others talents to get what we both needed. What I couldn’t id [identify] with was the secrets and lack of at least admitting to themselves what they were doing.”
Some participants felt the older adults portrayed in the movies looked ‘too good.’
- Supernova. An older gay couple goes on a journey after one of them is diagnosed with dementia. One woman indicated that she identified with many of the behaviors in this film as she experienced a 30-year decline with her husband who had had Alzheimer’s. These included the worry that he would forget her name, the demonstration of the person with Alzheimer’s consoling or comforting his loved one, and the way the couple had learned coping skills over a long time of being together. She did find the conversation where the man with Alzheimer’s was trying to explain to his partner how he wanted his life to end to be unrealistic. Her husband would not have been able to stay with a conversation that long. That seemed to bother other movie-viewers—they felt the director/writer had mixed early stages of the disease with scenes where the Alzheimer’s was much more advanced. However, most loved the movie, with one person relating that the fact that the couple was gay was secondary to the plot.
- The Quartet. This movie about a retirement community for aging musicians was a favorite, perhaps because our continuing care retirement community folks identified with the setting. There was plenty of irascibility and “dignified senility.” Relationships were believable—it’s not hard to imagine that people in their 80s and 90s still mourn the loss of old loves. These were definitely the oldest of the stars we saw in all of the movies. There were a few stereotypes but lightly played.
“It was a really enjoyable movie, likable characters, with most of whom I felt I could identify. The only discomfort I felt was a twinge of envy of the presence of so much great music, and gratitude for the distance of all the egos. Of course, it was only a 90-min movie, but I felt that the most authentic elders in it were the bit players acting themselves. In retrospect, I feel that even old lead actors might be too young inside to authentically portray age.”
- Our Souls at Night. An older woman (Jane Fonda) invites her neighbor (Robert Redford) to sleep with her, not for sex but because she misses the companionship of her dead husband. This movie had some very mixed reactions. Some felt it was a believable way to fall in love and another pointed to other scenes in the movie such as the ribbing Redford took about senior sex at the local café as examples of realism. Another said the premise was weird and uncommon. Most found that the main characters looked a bit too well-preserved for their ages. One thought the female character in that film was too attractive—"Cissy [sic] Spacek—would have made a dowdier and more believable lead.” I had read the book and I certainly never would have pictured these actors playing these roles.
When Bildtgårt’s (2000) rules are applied all movies seemed to follow the rules with few exceptions. In these films a sexual relationship was secondary (if present at all) to the affection the partners felt for one another. Portrayal of affection made our audience, especially the older participants, feel more comfortable with the movie. “I appreciated … sharing physical love and caring without feeling it necessary to show the sex act.”
The second rule, “elderly people who are sexually active have to be well-preserved,” was demonstrated in each of the movies as well. Only one movie showed more than an illusion of a sexual relationship, but in all of them it was implied. Being well-preserved was expressed as a reason for lack of realism, especially in the Fonda/Redford movie.
The third rule, that older people who are sexually active have to be lively, was especially defined in the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel by a randy old guy who appeared to want to hop into bed with as many younger women as he could find. However, there really wasn’t enough sex, or even illusions of sex in these movies to make a good demonstration of this rule.
Older people who are sexually active have to conform to gendered expectations was the fourth rule. Men were the initiators of sexual expression in nearly every film, which may have been one of the reasons that there was some discomfort with the final movie—Our Souls at Night, where the woman may have been seen as the initiator even though sex was not her intent.
The final rule, sexually active older people have to be single, was hard to assess, as in most movies we didn’t know for sure if people were having sex. The only movie in which we were certain there was sex featured a long-married couple. It would be interesting to assess the films that have been made about older adults since the Bildtgårt rules were set in 2000 to see if these rules still held true. For the most part, in this study, they did.
I believe that libido/desire may decrease with time caused by routine, familiarity, hormonal changes, health issues, or boredom, but that a good share of the reduction in sexual expression in older people is reinforced by cultural expectations. While we may no longer believe that sex is inappropriate for older people because it should be limited to procreation, sex is still seen as for the young. We see this repeatedly in romance novels, television shows, movies, and in the way we present ourselves to the world. Young = healthy = beautiful. Old = sick= ugly.
Five years ago, I wanted to see if older adults saw themselves in the older people engaged in intimate relationships that were portrayed on film. Were these characters portrayed in identifiable ways? I wondered if young directors and writers could really get this right. I was especially interested in ways that intimate relationships were portrayed. My audience was pretty accepting then but more so this time around. Obviously, it is important to note that these results are greatly influenced by the films selected.
‘A good share of the reduction in sexual expression in older people is reinforced by cultural expectations.’
One point stands out—comedies fall back on stereotypes to be funny. These stereotypes can become reinforcing. For example, I had planned to show Book Club, but changed my mind. One participant didn’t get the memo about changing the film and watched it. She eviscerated the shallow relationships and stereotypical behaviors in this film and hated it!
I found the selection of available films to be much larger in 2022, and I did not have to fall back on comedies for viewing. Several of these films were critically acclaimed and had won awards. That seems to represent a shift in acceptance of older adult themes. The average age of the directors for the films was five years older than they had been in 2017.
Supernova was written and directed by Harry Macqueen at age 36. This highly sensitive film was much more about dementia than it was about aging. Our Souls at Night was directed by a 38-year-old from a book written at age 75 by Kent Haruf. All of us watching the film wondered about the casting of such attractive people for these roles—did that have to do with a younger director and casting director wishing to appeal to a broader and younger audience? The oldest director, Dustin Hoffman (75) and one of the oldest writers, Ronald Harwood (64), partnered on the film that our older audience identified with the most—The Quartet.
Perhaps most interesting in this study is the fact that there seem to be some significant differences in young-old and older-old responses to sexuality and aging in movies. Our older audience wanted to see shows of affection and innuendos of sexuality—no actual sex scenes, but this did not appear to be on the minds of the younger viewers.
Based on the opinions of a small number of participants, films are becoming more sensitive to accurate portrayals of aging themes, even when it comes to sexuality and intimacy. While none of the films viewed were box office hits, some received critical acclaim, and all achieved a level of success. Viewers appreciated that movies were being made about people like them and enjoyed the opportunity to talk about movies after they were over. They even requested a permanent movie series dedicated to movies with older actors.
My question has been, do stereotypes about older adults’ sexuality expressed in media have an impact on the way older people view their own sexuality? At least in the case of the six movies viewed, I believe there is a possibility that film could normalize intimacy in older relationships. Because I see differences in the young-old and the older-old participants, I think it would be fascinating to follow these cohorts to see if the younger viewers have been enculturated differently about sex or if they, too, will claim to no longer care to see sexual expression in the movies they watch when they are 10 to 15 years older. I may have to come out of retirement again to find out.
Gayle Appel Doll, PhD, FGSA, GAGHE, is a retired associate professor at Kansas State University, and former director of the Center on Aging at Kansas State. Doll led the center's research, teaching, and outreach efforts, including the more than 20-year contract for the state program, Promoting Excellent Alternatives in Kansas nursing homes (PEAK), a person-centered long-term care initiative. She is a fellow of the Gerontological Society of America and the Association for Gerontology in Higher Education. In 2013 she published the book: Sexuality in Long-Term Care: Understanding and Supporting the Needs of Older Adults. She serves on the board of directors for Medicalodges, Inc., and PACE Kansas City.
Photo credit: Mr.Music/Shutterstock
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