Aging and Human Sexuality Resource Guide

Introduction

We don't discuss sexuality enough when considering the lives of older adults. It's easy to assume that aging brings dramatic changes and that sexuality is not a topic that concerns older adults to any great degree. Sometimes, however, events bring about a dramatic shift in awareness and understanding. The highly-publicized events following the release of the medication Viagra (sildenafil) provided a vivid example of such an event. Suddenly the country was swept with evidence that older adults are vitally concerned with sexuality. The evidence included the involvement of a former candidate for United States President, Bob Dole, publicly extolling the medication and what it had done for him, and also included dramatic statistics on the immediate response in terms of numbers of prescriptions written for Viagra. More recently, in 2006, the film Away From Her, brought issues of sexuality in couples dealing with dementia into sympathetic attention, with Julie Christie starring as an older woman with Alzheimer’s disease whose sexuality remains vibrant. While we still see many casual advertisements and media stories equating sexuality only with the young, there has been a paradigm shift in my lifetime toward a greater understanding that sexuality is an important part of life, throughout one’s lifetime.

For many years, I experienced such paradigm shifts among Psychology interns and Medical Residents who received training in a clinic for sexual dysfunction at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System, the Andrology Clinic, as part of their training in Geriatrics or Clinical Geropsychology. They met with patients, most of whom were over 60 and some of whom were well into their 80s, who cared very much about their sexual experiences and relationships and who would speak candidly and movingly about why they were seeking help for problems in sexual function. My experience was that interactions with these patients did more to change negative stereotypes about aging in these health professionals in training than any other training experiences they had. As interns frequently commented, "You just never think the same about your older clients (or your grandparents) after you have an 80 year old woman telling you how much she enjoys oral sex."

However, it is not easy for health professionals in training to find information to learn more about aging and sexuality, once they have realized how important this topic is. This website helps to solve that problem. It contains a wealth of citations for empirical evidence on aging and sexuality, summary chapters, case presentations, and resources to use for education in teaching settings or with clients. It is our hope that it will serve to further openness and sensitivity in health care professionals, as they try to attend to a vitally important topic that does not lose its power with age.

Antonette M. Zeiss, Ph.D.
APA Committee on Aging member (2001-2003)

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