Creating an Environment That Supports Sexual Wellbeing in Older Adults

In the past two decades, greater attention has been paid to the concept of sexual wellbeing. Even more recently, this discussion of sexual wellbeing has more frequently included older adults (senior citizens) in the discussion. In this article, we discuss creating an environment that supports sexual wellbeing generally and more specifically as it pertains to older individuals. This includes older people that live in a communal setting like an assisted living center.

Sexuality and Older Adults: The Psychological Vantage Point

Addressing the American Psychological Association Committee on Aging, Antonette M. Zeiss, Ph.D., discussed senior sexuality (or sexuality of women and men in their Golden Years. Because of her expertise and the way in which she succinctly and (we believe) accurately addressed the subject of sexuality and older adults, we’ve elected to take an excerpt from her well-received presentation and share it in this article:

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.

Multidimensional Nature of Sexuality

In order to ensure that the environment supports the sexual wellbeing of those in it, a key misperception of sexuality must be addressed head-on. Sexuality is not one thing, as many conclude. Rather, sexuality is multidimensional and encompasses:

  • Relationships
  • Romance
  • Intimacy (from basic touching to hugging to sexually direct interaction)
  • Gender
  • Grooming
  • Dress
  • Style

Importance of Sexual Expression

Research has consistently demonstrated that the ability of an individual to express sexuality is important to health, wellbeing, and quality of life. In more recent years, a fourth element has been added quite often to the list of why sexual expression is important. Many have come to conclude that sexual expression is a human right. (Of course, there are limitations to sexual expression and no suggestion is being made that unlawful assault or anything related falls within the purview of healthy sexual expression.)

Individuals in Their Golden Years: Sexuality Still Matters

Being able to express our sexuality is known to be important to health, well-being, quality of life [13] and furthermore, human rights [4]. The desire or need to express one’s sexuality does not expire with age and for many older people including those living in aged care facilities, sexuality continues to be important. A recent study by Bauer et al. [5] found that for many residents in aged care facilities, both with and without dementia, sexuality “still matters”.


There exists a number of books that address the subject of creating an environment that supports sexual wellbeing and discuss senior sexuality. We’ve identified books for you that have been recommended by the American Psychology Association. We provide reference to a few of them for your information:

Sex over 50
Block, J. D., & Bakos, S. C. (1999). Paramus, NJ: Reward Books.

This book speaks to the growing group of aging Americans who are looking for professional, practical advice on how to make the transition to deeper, richer, more sophisticated sexual relationships. Debunked are the myths of the youth-beauty obsession and our stereotypes of sexuality and aging, showing what it takes to be a mature lover and recapture the passion once believed to be the exclusive province of our youth.

Seasons of the heart: Men and women talk about love, sex, and romance after 60

Gross, Z. H. (2000). New York, NY: New World Library.

Sharing personal stories, this book explores the sexual, romantic, and platonic joys of relationships after 60. Chapters include “Not the End of the Song: Love When the World Says ‘No’ and Elders Say ‘Yes,'” “Troubles and Triumphs: The Baggage We Bring,” “Flowers in Winter: Men Speak of Elder Love,” “A Durable Fire: The Long-Lasting Marriage,” and “Love and Mortality: Gay Men and Lesbians As They Age.”

Sex, intimacy, and aged care Sherman, B. (1999). Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

This book offers a sympathetic perspective as well as constructive ideas for dealing with older people’s feelings, desires and behavior, and explodes the myths surrounding sexuality as a normal part of life.