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posted: 3/11/2013 4:57 AM

Many seniors remain sexually active, study finds

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  • Studies have found a correlation between sexual activity and happiness among people over 65.

    Studies have found a correlation between sexual activity and happiness among people over 65.

By Rita Wilson
The Providence Journal

Consider the reality of healthy aging, sexually active seniors and octogenarian lovers challenging the rules of decorum. The "Make Love Not War" flower children of the '60s are taking the slogan seriously. This year at the Gerontological Society of America 65th Annual Scientific Meeting in San Diego, there was even a session called "Love in Cyberspace: Dating and Sexuality" -- an interesting complement to the studies on the correlation between sexual activity and happiness among those over 65.

While many young people shudder at the thought of grandparents having sex, it is taking place in a wide range of settings, including single and married seniors living independently in the community to those in nursing homes. In addition to the Hugh Hefners of the world, looking for Playboy bunnies and Barbies, there is a serious group of men and women looking for mature love and engaging in age-appropriate sex.

Increased sexual activity is a strong predictor for happiness, according to the data analysis of the General Social Survey, funded by the National Science Foundation. Happiness increases with frequency of sex even among those over 65. Dr. Adrienne Jackson, an assistant professor of physical therapy at Florida A&M. University, spearheaded the study presented at the GSA last year.

But here is a downside. Dating originating in cyberspace among the over-50 group and those embracing life to the fullest by engaging in consensual sex may be putting themselves in harm's way. Last summer a report in the British Medical Journal noted that some 80 percent of men and women 50 to 90 are sexually active. However, many in this group seem to feel that they are immune from sexually transmitted diseases, the incidence of which in this age group has more than doubled over the past 10 years. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also reported an alarming increase, particularly in states heavily populated by the retired set.

One of the most comprehensive surveys of sexual behavior among older adults showed that 73 percent of those 57-64 had sex during the past year, as had 53 percent of those 65-74 and 26 percent of those 75-85. The research was from a study of sexuality and health among older U.S. adults as reported in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2007 headed by Dr. Edward O. Laumann. A distinguished professor and dean at the University of Chicago, he is an analyst for the Global Study of Sexual Attitudes and Behavior, a survey of 27,500 men and women 40 to 80 in 29 countries.

In talking with Laumann regarding infidelity statistics, he pointed out a perplexing issue. Is it considered infidelity when one partner has no recollection of his or her spouse?

We saw a well-reported case of this with retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and her husband. She retired from the bench because of his worsening dementia. Then her son revealed that when they went to visit him at the nursing home, he was holding hands with another woman -- his new love.

Gayle Appel Doll, director of Kansas State University's Center for Aging, has written "Sexuality and Long-Term Care," published by Health Professions Press. It is a sensitive look at sexuality issues, staff attitudes and family influences. The book, which also addresses the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered residents in long-term-care facilities, includes questionnaires that might help this population and the baby boomers.

With or without sexual intimacy, healthy aging can be embraced, Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a GSA session presenter for the "Life Course Predictors of Later Life Well-Being and Health," says that in her research on long-term fulfillment in midlife adults, published in her book, "The Search for Fulfillment," she identified a developmental pathway from college to the 50s called "The "Triumphant Trail."

A University of Massachusetts at Amherst psychology professor, Whitbourne noted: "The men and women who managed to cope most successfully with adversity had, when they were in college, more optimistic personalities than their peers. Their scores were high on Erik Erikson's theory of trust, meaning that they had faith in their environment and felt that the world was a good place."

We often read of the search for the fountain of youth. Perhaps the '60s flower children have found it through a positive attitude spiced with gratitude, laughter and a healthy dose of loving sex.

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