Tina is a bilingual writer of unconventional fiction, a media graduate with a special focus on human sexuality and a content writer.
The Harmful Effects of Ageism
The Irish poet, W.B Yeats, said, "Ireland is no country for old men”—and he was only 60 when he felt neglected. Ireland has changed a lot, but old age is still a sexless place, and ageism is still an acceptable practice. Ageism is a cruel rejection. Ageism degrades and diminishes a person’s life based on age, and unlike any other form of prejudice, ageism will affect us all if we live long enough.
Do you want to become invisible as you age? Do you want to be laughed at and ridiculed for signs of the ageing process? No. It’s time to rethink and review ageing.
We are becoming more age-friendly, but it’s a slow process due to our youth-worshipping culture. If we’re lucky enough to live a long life, we will go through the ageing process. By 2050, one in five people, or two billion people, will be over 60.
We must challenge the stereotypes of old adults as depressed, helpless and asexual. Ageist views take root in childhood and are cemented in adolescence—and for older adults, they become self-fulfilling prophecies. Sexuality is also an essential part of an ageing person’s being, and expressing it is a human right. Despite this, there is a societal belief that old people are vulnerable and need care, not intimacy.
Ageism is Still Socially Acceptable
Ageism is just as harmful as race or sex discrimination but is denied, trivialised and even laughed at. Birthday cards often portray older adults as weak and failing and their sexuality as dirty, depraved or lecherous. In films, older persons are often portrayed as asexual, sweet and childlike, or worse, as repulsive, out of touch and irrational.
Ageism is socially acceptable. When we are younger, we laugh at the stereotypes of older adults, but this -ism also teaches us to fear old age. We see old age as unnatural. If we had the same criminal charges attached to ageism as we do sexism and racism, the change would happen fast, but we continue to laugh at older adults when they are portrayed as old, sick and costing too much.
Older adults are not sweet little grannies and granddads who are happiest looking after their grandchildren; they have already raised children. Enough. We need to start looking at old age as a process, not an affliction. The media continues to tell us that ageing must be fought, not embraced. We see young naked bodies everywhere, but the bodies of older adults are hidden unless the older adult has gone through the mutilation of cosmetic surgery to look younger than their age.
We are all affected by continuing to accept ageism.
Overprotection and Ageism in Pandemic Times
In pandemic times, we find even more proof of ageism in Irish media. Imprisoning older people for their own good is called cocooning, but by changing a paternalistic action into a soft verb, we are even furthering ageism, thinking that older adults are a bit stupid; they can’t figure out what we’re really doing.
Ireland is overprotecting the older population. Overprotection is a form of abuse. Older people have a right to be in charge of their own life. Older people are capable of deciding for themselves and should be allowed to do so. We have all been told to stop hugging, kissing and handshaking with people, and those who have complied are those who suffer the most from the lack of human touch, our older population.
We should neither revere nor overprotect older adults. The people who are lucky enough to move from middle age into old age don’t want to be wrapped up and protected from talking about sex and death; they are often comfortable with both. And they certainly don’t need to hear they are vulnerable.
Ageism Is Harmful to Everyone
Old people deserve the right to decide over their own life, and no, adult children don’t always have their parents’ best interest at heart; in fact, it’s often their own interest they're concerned with. We see age discrimination everywhere; it’s deeply ingrained in Euro-American culture, and plays out in the law, the workplace, the family and majorly so in the media. Acknowledging and starting to examine our internalised ageism is essential.
Older Adults and Sex
Older adults are afforded love, but not sex and especially not causal sex. If an older person is single, they are almost automatically seen as asexual. Our sexual life span is incredibly limited when we look at representation in media; after 50, we must endure a long stretch of sexlessness before death. The notion of parents not having sex is born out of the religious idea that once children have been made, there is no reason to have sex anymore. Feeling old rather than being old can affect the quality of an older person’s sex life more than medical reasons. There is help, but we need to start talking openly about sex and ageing.
We Used to Get Old at 40. Now It's 65 and Shifting.
If we go back to the early 1800s in Ireland, old age began at 40. It has taken 200 years for that age to increase to 65 years, which has held for almost 20 years. But this is also shifting as people have to work longer, up until 70 years of age.
It wasn’t until 1957 that sexual pleasure among older adults was recognised, thanks to a study by William Masters and Virginia Johnson. It took until the early 1980s before older adults were included in research around sexual activity. In 2009, the world finally realised that sexual activity in the lives of older people might tend to decline, but sexual interest, including desire and capacity, often remains.
Love, Yes—but Not Sex
Despite this, older people are often perceived and described as being asexual. Older adults who have internalised the discriminatory view of themselves laugh at themselves instead of speaking up for themselves. In 2002 and 2003, studies found significant findings of negative views of older adults and ageing. A survey of students found negative attitudes towards older adults on productivity, adapting to change, independence, and optimism.
Older Adults Regret Not Having More Sex
When asked about regrets, older adults usually wished they had more sex when they had the opportunity, but sex is for life, and it’s time to break this taboo.
Older adults want to be in charge of their own life for life. We live longer, and older adults want to be contributing, participating citizens for as long as possible.
In 1961, a new theory of ageing developed by social scientists called the disengagement theory argued that older adults would naturally disengage from society while waiting to die, but the study is dated. Older adults long for intimacy and sex. They continue to experience intense attraction to people, and thanks to the internet, they don’t have to end up alone when a partner dies.
No New Myths
We must be mindful not to create a new myth around the sexy old person; it’s not what allowing old adults their sexuality is about; it is about dignity and the right to the full expression of human desire and eroticism. We have to stop managing old age and stop fostering dependency. We should build and support the strength of older adults throughout the latter part of life. Older people are not dead until they are dead, but we treat old age as a waiting game. Erotic power and old age are compatible.
Train Medical Professionals to Talk Openly About Sex With Older Adults
Sexual health is a public health issue, but doctors are not trained to talk about sex with their older patients; they see grey hair and think sex is impossible, but good sex means better quality of life. Older adults are treated as if they should happily just wait out the rest of their life instead of enjoying it. Older adults should talk about aches and pains instead of pleasure and orgasms. Older adults don’t dare to ask their doctor how to maintain a healthy sex life.
Research shows that people in their ninth decade are still engaging in sex, and they do it for intimacy and pleasure. Pleasure is a right, but sexual dysfunction becomes more bothersome and talking about it in the doctor’s surgery, amongst friends and in media is vital. It’s not just about physical pleasure; being sexually active creates deep intimacy, more honest and open communication, and more significant connection. Older adults who engage in sex are present in the moment; they transcend rather than worry about when their time is up.
Doctors must ask about older adults’ sex life, how they are getting on, how it feels, and what they might need help with. Sex for life is good for all of society. This is especially important in the ageing LGBTQ community as their identity is part of their sexuality. In reality, our sexuality is part of all our identities, and having sex is as important as walking. Whether that is solo sex, a twosome or even a threesome is up to the older adult.
Older Adults Live Online Too
Sex is medicine, even if that is just masturbation and not full-on penetration. Old people’s sex lives are as diverse as young people’s sex lives. While busting myths, we must also be careful not to create new ones. Older adults don’t have to look younger than their age to enjoy a healthy sex life. Older people don’t need retouching; they need the human touch.
The internet affords older adults what society doesn’t give to them, sexual freedom. Here they can express, experiment and challenge the idea that they are asexual, uninterested and/or incapable of being sexual. Older adults are using the internet to explore their sexual identities and experiences. They have internalised ageism, but many now choose to be part of bursting myths about themselves.
We Must Start Calling Out Ageism When We Encounter It
We must encourage open dialogue about sex with our older population. Openness about sexual desire, needs and problems is essential to burst myths and break taboos of older adults and eroticism. We must learn how to grow old and remain equal. Sexuality and intimacy are as important as we age as when we are young. We must stop overprotecting older people.
Sex as We Age Should Be a Module in Sex Education
Sex for life starts by including ageing in our sex education. By making sex a natural part of our whole life, we learn that it’s ok to refresh our knowledge as we age, not stop having sex because of menopause, andropause, or whatever condition or disease might make sex difficult, painful or even impossible.
A recent study asked older adults what is essential in affirming positive sexuality as we grow older. They mentioned tenderness and care, altruism and gratitude, attractiveness, positive communication, sexual activity, good health and physical condition, supportive relationship, eroticism and feeling active and alive. They underlined the importance of tenderness, care and eroticism for sexually active older adults.
Sex Education for Older Adults
Sex education for older adults is also necessary, and the internet is a good place to start. While society has denied older adults their sexuality for centuries, older people of the digital age are going online, proving that they are not resistant to change or incapable of learning new skills. Older adults have larger companionship networks online.
As we age and lose life partners or family ties loosen, older adults go online to find company. Sex education on the internet prevents the user from being shamed, and older adults can speak freely about all the issues they have been told don’t matter.
We still encourage busyness in older age, and that’s why we prefer older women to be grannies rather than strong, independent women who have partners and lovers and fulfilling sex lives. A lot of people wonder if women can experience orgasm after 50!
- Women over 60 can get an orgasm, even after a hysterectomy.
- Men over 70 can get an erection even without Viagra.
That means even educated people are uneducated about pleasure; it doesn’t wane; it increases or changes.
Embrace the Ageing Process
Pleasure and eroticism are for life. Sex appeal is timeless. We need a pro-ageing attitude instead of an anti-ageing attitude. It’s time to embrace a new view of sexuality that doesn’t cringe at the thought or sight of older people enjoying sex. Sexual appetite changes, but just like hunger, it doesn’t disappear; we just eat less. Sex is an essential part of a relationship.
Instead of fighting the ageing process, we must learn to embrace this inevitable part of life. 65 is not old. 70 is the new 50, and if we’re lucky enough to live a long life, we also have a right to express ourselves sexually for as long as we may want. Pleasure and eroticism are tools for enjoying life, and older people deserve to enjoy life until death, not just until their pension.
- Mark Adams, Jessica Oye & Trent Parker (2003) Sexuality of older adults and the Internet: From sex education to cybersex, Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 18:3, 405-415, DOI: 10.1080/1468199031000153991
Masters, William H., Virginia E. Johnson. Human Sexual Response. Toronto; New York: Bantam Books, 1966.Masters, William H., Virginia E. Johnson, and Robert C. Kolodny. Ethical Issues in Sex Therapy and Research. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1977.
- Sofia Von Humboldt, Sexual Expression in Old Age: How Older Adults from Different Cultures Express Sexually? May 2020Sexuality Research and Social Policy: Journal of NSRC 46(5):284-293
- Lee Smith, Lin Yang, Nicola Veronese, Pinar Soysal, Brendon Stubbs, Sarah E. Jackson, Sexual Activity is Associated with Greater Enjoyment of Life in Older Adults, Sexual Medicine, Volume 7, Issue 1,2019, Pages 11-18, ISSN 2050-1161,https://doi.org/10.1016/j.esxm.2018.11.001.(https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2050116118301119)
- Estill A, Mock SE, Schryer E, Eibach RP. The Effects of Subjective Age and Aging Attitudes on Mid- to Late-Life Sexuality. J Sex Res. 2018 Feb;55(2):146-151. doi: 10.1080/00224499.2017.1293603. Epub 2017 Mar 3. PMID: 28276931.
- Traeen, Bente & Carvalheira, Ana & Hald, Gert & Lange, Theis & Kvalem, Ingela. (2019). Attitudes Towards Sexuality in Older Men and Women Across Europe: Similarities, Differences, and Associations with Their Sex Lives. Sexuality & Culture. 23. 10.1007/s12119-018-9564-9.
- Cruikshank, Margaret. Learning to be Old: Gender, Culture and Ageing. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2013 <https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/iadt-ebooks/detail.action?docID=466814>.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Tina Brescanu