Dating and sexual activity in Canadians over 50: a pioneering frontier

Aging Canadians, like their American counterparts, are growing in numbers. Their growth is projected to accelerate rapidly over the coming years, according to Canada’s Bureau of Statistics, especially within Ontario and British Columbia (1).  Presently, more than 25% of British Columbia’s population is between 50 and 90+ years of age (2).

Along with their growth in numbers, Canadian seniors and their lifestyle are also changing. They are educated and better off financially than their ancestors, and they are living longer. The average 65-year-old Canadian can now expect to live another 13.3 years (1). Seniors must cope with the various diseases of aging, such as heart disease, hypertension, obesity, arthritis, as well as other medical or physical conditions that can impair or slow down their daily living.

Unfortunately, it seems that most medical and lay people focus only on these disease processes, as well as on other aspects of decline this sector of aging Canadians might represent. Few point out the vitality of this rapidly growing sector (1). Living longer means a continuation with life – every facet of it. This includes dating again after a divorce or the death of a spouse. It also includes being sexually active.

Any discussions about “issues related to dating” an older adult patient might have re-entering the world of dating are not common. Precautions about how an older adult would or should approach the new venue of online dating are not addressed. While one might think such conversations take place with family, friends, within a doctor’s office or with a therapist, they do not. Unfortunately, many medical and mental health professionals possess the same biases or lack of knowledge about senior life the general public has. Trying to have a discussion about one’s level of “sexual activity” as an aging adult is even harder. Few seem to believe that people over the age of fifty engage in sexual activity. Limited research has proven that they actually do.

According to a 2007 study of 3,005 U.S. adults aged 57-85 published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the following groups reported having sex at least once within the past year:

  • 73% of people aged 57 to 64;
  • 53% of those aged 65 to 74;
  • 26% of those aged 75 to 85.

Clearly, older adults are engaging in sexual activities (3).

Older adults are subject to the same sexually transmitted diseases that are prevalent among their younger dating counterparts. In fact, one critically important point to be made here is the growing number of older adults who are being diagnosed with HIV/AIDS (4). Approximately 12% to 20% of all new AIDS cases are among men and women over the age of 65 (5). Those who contract this infection, or any other sexually transmitted disease, are at an increased risk for experiencing the harsh side effects of the drugs used to treat them. More open discussions about sex among aging adults are desperately needed.

How can older Canadians continue to engage in healthy sexual activities and protect themselves in the process?

  • Have open discussions with your physician/psychologist/nurse about personal dating issues you have, your own private level of sexual activity, and your concerns about sexually transmitted diseases;
  • Collect printed materials on STD transmission and share them with your friends. Knowledge is power at any age;
  • If you are over fifty years of age and have been having unprotected sex, get tested. Know your HIV status. Keep copies of your test results in a personal file at home;
  • Talk to potential partners about HIV testing;
  • Sadly, do not trust anyone who “tells you” they have tested negative! Oprah did an entire show on women who bought that line and are now HIV positive;
  • Have your own supply of condoms and avoid unprotected sex.

Social interaction is a key factor to maintaining a positive and healthy aging process. Engaging in sex is also known to improve health in aging adults. Do not avoid it. You can have a happy sex life in your “golden years” – just be smart and careful.

References

(1)   Demographic Division, Statistics Canada, Ottawa. (2009). “Population Projections: Canada, the provinces and territories”.

(2)   Demographic Division, Statistics Canada, Ottawa. (2009). “Population estimates standard age groups for British Columbia”.

(3)   Lindau, S.T., Schumm, M.A., Laumann E.O., Levinson, W., Muircheartaigh, C.A., Waite, L.J. (2007). “A study of sexuality and health among older adults in the united states”. New England Journal of Medicine, 357, 762-774.

(4)   Hillman, J. (2008). “Sexual issues and aging within the context of work with older adult patients”. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 39 (3), 290-297.

(5)   Gerberding, J.L. (2004). “Women and infectious diseases”. Emerging Infectious Diseases, 10 (11), 1965-1967.

About the Author

Deborah A. Forrest, Ph.D., R.Psych. is a Registered Psychologist. She presently resides in the North Georgia Mountains where she writes and publishes articles and books on the topics of aging and dementia. Her book Symphony of Spirits: Encounters with the Spiritual Dimensions of Alzheimer’s was an international bestseller.