Fifty Shades of Grey?

Imagine this: Your 80-year-old father takes you out on a pond in a paddle boat, stops paddling, turns to you, his 50-something-year-old daughter and says, “Something’s wrong with your mom and me. Our sex life isn’t what it used to be.”

Yes, that was me, the daughter, and I blame that particular situation on myself because I had decided to become an expert in older adult sexuality.

I don’t remember what I might have said to reassure him, but I also don’t remember the conversation as being uncomfortable. I’m pretty sure I would have said that changes are to be expected and that they might be seen as challenges to be creative and forgiving.

I might also have said that as a gerontologist I have seen aging from two perspectives: 1. via generalizations assuming all older adults are similar; and 2. via the “if you’ve seen one 80-year-old, you’ve seen one 80-year-old,” view, meaning our differences become even more varied as we age, including when it comes to intimacy. My textbook understanding of older adult sexuality might not be all that helpful when it comes to individual problems.

I had known more than I wanted to know about my parent’s sex life as I was growing up. They were noisy and frequent with their liaisons when I was young and after I left home for college, I became my mom’s confidant. I knew mostly the parts that weren’t so good or weren’t working.

They must have been in their 70s when Dad took blankets and cushions out on the grass behind the house but then couldn’t manage an erection. On the one hand, I had to admire Dad’s willingness to be playful, but the second half of the story wasn’t so charming. Dad sent Mom to the pharmacy to get Viagra. When he found out that you had to have a prescription and the pills were expensive, he balked and learned to lesson his desires. This part of the story made me sad.

‘I had known more than I wanted to know about my parent’s sex life as I was growing up.’

Another quick tale about Mom and Dad. One day I asked them what they knew about sex before they were married. Mom said, “Nothing. Nothing at all. Your grandmother didn’t tell me what to expect.” I turned to Dad, and he said “Oh, I knew everything there was to know. I was raised on a farm.”

Mom didn’t skip a beat when she replied, “That answers a lot of questions.” Of course, as a child of these sexual beings I had an instant visual.

My parents were raised, like others of their generation, before the age of television, sex education in school and social media. It was also a time when you didn’t seek help if something wasn’t working the way it should. It was this generation I had in mind when I thought about what I wanted this issue to look like.

I am a researcher with a natural curiosity about many things, older adult sexuality being one of them. My research has sought to answer my personal questions. With this group of articles, I wanted to learn not only about some of the cutting-edge research but also more about what non-researchers could tell us about the real issues with sexuality and aging. And it happened! I counted several times when I was reading these articles when my eyebrows went up because I was seeing something new or hearing a perspective I had not heard before.

These new perspectives made me reconsider some of my own notions about sexuality for older people. As a Baby Boomer, I was raised believing there were more “should nots” than “shoulds” with sex. Now I find myself questioning many of my sexuality beliefs.

For my contribution to this Generations Journal edition, I watched movies about older adult relationships with some of my older friends and then questioned them about whether these films appropriately portrayed what they believed about older adult sexuality. Now that I’ve read the articles in this issue I’m beginning to wonder if it should be the role of movies to push those boundaries and show people what the possibilities might be. Imagine if my dad had watched porn instead of cows—how his wedding night might have been different!

‘Now I find myself questioning many of my sexuality beliefs.’

What I mean by this is that we have been enculturated to believe that sex is not appropriate for older people—and not only sex as intercourse but any type of sexual relationship or activity. Older people who still enjoy intimacy may hide this fact for fear of appearing to be outside the norm. It will take a cultural shift to remove these fetters to attraction and desire.

Existing research has demonstrated the positive effects of intimate relationships. As people near the end of life, when they begin to experience more losses than gains, it is important to nurture these relationships.

One anecdote making the rounds goes like this: An older woman was asked how she would rate her sex life on a scale from 1–10. She said, “I’d give it a 10. I haven’t had sex since 1979 and I haven’t missed it one bit!”

This is no doubt true for many and important to remember, but just as there are some on this end of the spectrum there are just as many on the other.

While one of my goals was to present new perspectives of older adult sexuality, my second goal was to have the reader want to read this issue from cover to cover. I hope you enjoy this adventure and in the process have your mind blown just a little bit.

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.

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