The thought of older adults being interested in sex can be difficult for young adults to comprehend. Ageism driven discomfort and silence towards this topic have devastating implications. Undergraduate students are well positioned to become allies who can fight ageism, champion the right to healthy sexual expression in later life and expose the risks of sexual elder abuse. Tackling this topic is difficult and will take purposeful engagement from students and professors.

As an undergraduate student who is majoring in gerontology, I believe that sexuality does not, and should not, have an age cutoff. Despite this, I was flabbergasted when my 79 year old grandmother spoke very publicly with me about her sexual desires over lunch recently. I tried to respect my grandmother as a human being with sexual needs, desires, and rights, but I left lunch feeling confused. I knew that it was ageist to presume that older adults have lost all interest in sex, and was aware of the risks involved with that assumption, but the idea of my grandmother having sex was still uncomfortable.

Undergraduate courses offer opportunities to educate students about sexuality in later life.

Universities and colleges should offer opportunities for students to learn about sexuality in later life.                    (Creative Commons)

Students enrolled in undergraduate programs often take developmental psychology, lifespan sociology, and aging and gerontology courses, which present ideal opportunities to delve into the intersections of aging, sexuality and ageism. Research shows that the attitudes of undergraduate students towards sexuality in later life, as well as other aspects of aging, become more positive through exposure to these realms.1 Educating students about sexuality and aging should begin with breaking down the misconceptions that feed ageist attitudes (e.g., that it is normal to experience sexual impairment, that older adults do not have an interest in being sexually active, that sexual activity is dangerous in later life, etc.). From there, curricula should cover the dangerous implications of our society failing to discuss sexuality and aging.

Silence on this topic:

It’s also important to highlight the personal relevance of this topic to all people. We are all aging and will become older adults in the future. I ask all young adults to imagine how life would feel if everyone we encounter – like family members, a physician or people at a party – thinks we are crazy for wanting to maintain a healthy and active sexual life as an older adult. And what if we are in danger, but no one thinks to help because of denial that older adults can experience sexual violence?

Students are the professionals of the future, will care for older adults in their personal lives and will, unfortunately, one day face the stigma and challenges of sexuality in later life. However, if introduced to the topic as part of their undergraduate course work, students can become part of the necessary force for change. Professionals, elder justice advocates and older adults also stand to gain from any increased public awareness and engagement on this topic. The elder justice field should work with colleges and relevant faculty to capitalize on the opportunity to target a concentrated population of potential future advocates.

By Zoe Eisenberg, NYCEAC 2014 Risk and Resiliency Internship Project Intern and Edited by Sarah Dion, NYCEAC Program Assistant

Related Posts

Cultivating New Elder Justice Professionals: The Risk & Resiliency Internship Project
Why is it important for elder justice professionals to talk about sex with older clients?
Exploring the Sexual Rights of Older Adults: Toward Healthy Sexuality and Freedom from Victimization in Later Life
Elder Abuse & LGBT Older Adults: Recent News & Research

  1. Shannon Freeman, Sarah Sousa & Eva Neufeld (2014) Sexuality in Later Life:Examining Beliefs and Perceptions of Undergraduate Students, Gerontology & Geriatrics Education, 35:2, 200-213. []

6 Responses to Let’s Talk About Sex and Older Adults: Educating Undergrads & Tackling Ageism

  1. Lauren says:

    Great piece on an important and often ignored topic. Thanks!

  2. My question to young people who are uncomfortable with the idea of Grandma and/or Grandpa having sex is to ask them at what age they plan to stop having sex. 45? 50? 55?

    • Cara Kenien says:

      Hi Madeleine – thanks so much for your comment and great question, which highlights the fact that all generations can relate to these topics. Thank you again for weighing in here!

  3. I am so happy to see this article! I am a partner in a health communication and promotion firm. Our current campaign is directed at both older adults who are having sex and not using protection, as well as their physicians who share all the ageist preconceptions and assumptions about sex and their older patients, and either assume that sex is not happening here or are too embarrassed to raise the issue with them if they are even thinking about it. What is really needed is a dismantling of our youth worshiping culture and economy, but that is a larger project than we have time for. Right now, there is a quiet epidemic of STDs emerging in adults over 55 because of many of the factors you have mentioned. Please feel free to contact me, both for information, and perhaps collaboration. Good work! Tosia McCormick

    • Cara Kenien says:

      Hi Tosia – thanks so much for your comment and important points. It sounds like you’re doing great work and I would love to learn more about it. Looking forward to continuing the conversation.

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