Sex & Relationships

How to Talk to Your Parents About Sex

Healthy sexuality contributes to quality of life, and aging adults can see real health benefits from sexual enjoyment.

My mom turns sixty-nine this fall, and she recently asked if I could turn my communications expertise to a more familial project: updating her personal profile on a popular dating site. As she gears up to meet men for Coke dates in the mall, I geared up for how to have "the talk" that I never got from her. How do I cover the basics, like condom use and STI prevention that I wished I'd heard from her as a teen-and how do I cover topics like vaginal dryness, communication, and pleasure (topics I would have liked, but maybe not from mom)? I wish to be as bold as masturbation guru Betty Dodson, who, the story goes, once asked her mother, How are your orgasms?

From birth to death, we are all sexual beings. We have a hard enough time acknowledging this when it comes to children, but when it comes to aging adults, the silence is deafening. And deadly: 60 percent of unmarried women ages fifty-eight to ninety-three report that they didn't use a condom the last time they had sex, and the CDC reports that 15 percent of new HIV cases are among people over fifty. The number of adults sixty-five and older will reach seventy-two million by 2030-and, according to current statistics, about 46 percent of them won't be married; 7 to 10 percent will identify as LGBT. That's a lot of people. More importantly, that's a lot of people having sex: Stacey Lindau's groundbreaking research on sexuality and aging showed that 53 percent of those aged sixty-five to seventy-four are sexually active. My mom is going to have a lot of Coke dates.

Scary statistics aside, sexuality has a lot more to offer elders than risk: healthy sexuality contributes to quality of life, and aging adults can see real health benefits from sexual enjoyment - whether that happens alone or with a partner. Regular sex is believed to stimulate the immune system, lower stress, and improve sleep. According to a Scottish study, folks having regular sex look seven to twelve years younger than their peers. And it's a lot cheaper (with less recovery time) than plastic surgery or Botox.

Aging adults also have special needs when it comes to sexuality. Erection concerns and vaginal dryness are common among elders, and a penetration-focused sexual discourse leaves many potential avenues for sexual fulfillment unexplored. Assisted living facilities are not always supportive of sexual expression amongst residents. Dementia, as well as cognitive and physical impairment, can pose real barriers to issues such as consent, healthy decision-making, and sexual desire. Stigma and shame from family, caregivers and doctors, who get "grossed out" by the idea of older adults having sex, leave the concerns of aging adults invisible and untended. Separation and death of a partner leave boomer-plus adults willing - but ill-prepared - to enter a new world of dating and relationships. LGBT elders face special concerns of isolation and oppression as they grow older. For all these reasons, aging adults are left with few resources, little information, and a paucity of supportive healthcare.

As part of our mission to promote lifelong healthy sexuality, the National Sexuality Resource Center has made sexuality and aging a priority issue: We are currently conducting an assessment of the sexuality needs of aging adults in assisted living facilities, leading presentations on sexuality and aging at national conferences including AARP, and working to include the special concerns of LGBT elders in sexuality dialogues.

Over the next weeks the National Sexuality Resource Center will co-produce a series on sexuality and aging, in partnership with RH Reality Check. In our efforts to promote positive, healthy sexuality - not just disease prevention or risk avoidance - you will find articles that discuss sexuality in all its complexity. Relationship coach Katherine Forsythe covers singles, dating, and relationship issues; Clitoral Truth author Rebecca Chalker offers sexual health tips. Lara Riscol will take a look at the problems posed by Alzheimer's and sexuality, and sexuality pioneer Peggy Brick will introduce her groundbreaking work on sex education for elders. To finish things off, Meika Loe takes a look at how Viagra puts extra pressure on men's sexual performance. Make sure you're signed up for NSRC News email alerts so you don't miss the series.

On his ninety-fifth birthday, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes saw an attractive woman and mused, "Oh, to be seventy again." Our potential for healthy sexuality extends as far as our lifespan; we all deserve the information, resources, and support to fully live up to our potential. Not to mention a few, good, healthy orgasms.