No Upper Limit: Relationships and Sexual Health Among Older Americans
By Linda L. Fisher
Recent AARP studies of the lifestyles of “boomers-plus”—that is, baby boomers and older adults—show that this population is moving into the prime of their lives with mostly very positive attitudes toward aging. They take a largely optimistic view of what the future holds for them, including looking at this stage of their lives as one of continued personal (and often professional) growth and development, as a time to try to realize many of their pent-up hopes and dreams—and as a time to continue to seek and maintain meaningful relationships.
Relationships with family and friends are the most important thing in older people’s lives. Moreover, sexual intimacy is considered to be critical to good relationships for large numbers of men and women, regardless of age and even regardless of marital status. AARP studies show that, as long as one maintains one’s health and has a sexual partner, one has the ability to maintain healthy intimate relationships throughout the lifecycle.
The “boomer” generation, still more than 77 million strong in 2006, is changing the face of aging in America—and, indeed, around the world. This is a banner year for boomers—not only will the first of them turn sixty this year, but by year’s end, fully half of those born between 1946 and 1964 will be age fifty or older. While this story is not just about boomers—it is about relationships and sexuality among the older population, with no upper limit—their impact on aging and relationships is huge, and must be acknowledged.
What changes will boomers bring to aging, especially in the area of family and relationships? Of particular interest is the increasing attention they draw to singles lifestyles and their greater tolerance of diversity in sexual and family relationships, including divorce, sex outside of marriage, and same-sex relationships. Using a variety of methodologies appropriate for dealing with sensitive topics, AARP has conducted several major studies that look specifically at relationships and how they play into the lifestyles of midlife and older adults. These include surveys on sexuality, dating, and divorce, as well as on other factors that affect lifestyles, such as caregiving, work, money, and even respondents’ general well-being and sense of control. Among them are the following, whose findings we present here:
Solid majorities of adults age forty-five or older say a satisfying sexual relationship is important to their quality of life—that’s 67 percent of men and 57 percent of women. Yet relationships matter even more to this population. In 2004, relationships with a spouse or partner, as well as close ties with friends and family, were both rated as important by close to nine in ten respondents (see Figure 1).
Moreover, the importance of a good sexual relationship to quality of life decreases with age—more dramatically and quickly among women than among men. Among men, the importance of a sexual relationship remains relatively undiminished until after age seventy. For women, however, a significant drop-off occurs after age fifty, and by sixty, fewer than half say that sex is important to quality of life (Figure 2).
As Figure 3 shows, nearly three in four older adults think there is too much emphasis on sex in today’s culture. Nevertheless, 60 percent (up 5 percent from 1999) say sex is critical to a good relationship. And just 34 percent (down from 41 percent), say that people should not have sex if they are not married.