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Sex and the Senior Woman

September 25, 2016
Dr. Cheryl Phillips

For older women, wellness priorities can be pretty straightforward: To be our healthiest selves, we need to see the doctor for checkups, eat well, get regular physical activity, pay attention to our mental health, and avoid unhealthy behaviors.

Dr. Cheryl PhillipsBut what about sexual intimacy?

There are many beliefs and myths about aging and sex. A common one is that people 55 and older don't have, think about, or want sex. That's not always true. Our needs as human beings don't change just because we age. We all need interaction with others, social connections, and for many, sexual intimacy and romantic relationships. In fact, older women who remain sexually active tend to have higher self-esteem and higher levels of social engagement and satisfaction in life.

After menopause, you may be relieved to not worry about birth control, but that newfound freedom doesn't mean you should forget about safe sex. We still need to protect ourselves from sexually transmitted infections (STIs) by using condoms with new partners, being monogamous or limiting our number of partners, and getting tested for STIs. That means talking openly and honestly with doctors and nurses. Unfortunately, for a lot of women, talking about sex is uncomfortable. If you're of a certain age or were with only one partner for many years, you may not have discussed these things with a doctor in a long time. But there's good reason to start: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people aged 55 and older accounted for 26% of all Americans living with diagnosed or undiagnosed HIV infection in 2013. I encourage you to think about the questions you have about yourself, your body, and your relationships. Don't be afraid to bring them up to your doctor or nurse. Trust me — they've heard it all and can help you figure out the best way to stay healthy while enjoying sexual intimacy.

As people age, they may need more daily help and care than they can get from living with family or independently. But just because you move into an assisted-living community or nursing home, that doesn't mean you have to give up your intimate relationships! If you're considering moving into a nursing home or already live in one, you may be worried about what you are and are not allowed to do. Or you may feel awkward about not having as much privacy as you're used to.

Recognizing that healthy sexuality is an important part of adult relationships, nursing and assisted-living communities should outline community values, clarify staff responsibilities, and protect residents' relationships and emotional and physical health. This can be a huge help to residents and staff. They help prevent embarrassing situations and unnecessary conflict, and they can help staff work through their beliefs (and potential misconceptions) about older adults and sex. They also help to address some complex issues like consent, abuse, and how much residents' families need to know.

Healthy sexual and romantic relationships are an important part of many adults' lives. We shouldn't have to give them up just because we're older.

The statements and opinions in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women's Health.