Love, intimacy and sex during the golden years

Although the sexual revolution was instrumental in changing beliefs and dispelling myths about sex, a misconception still exists that older people lose the capacity to enjoy sex.

In reality, sexual interest and activity continue well into older age.

According to a recent survey by the National Council on the Aging, nearly half of all Americans age 60 or older engage in sexual activity at least once a month. What's more, nearly half of all men and women in the survey said their sex life today is physically more satisfying or unchanged compared to when they were in their 40s.

Although seniors may not be as comfortable talking about sex as their children or grandchildren, that doesn't mean they have a negative attitude toward sex. On the contrary.

Many seniors feel the same passion and desire for their partner as they did 20 years ago, and for some, the emotional connection during sex deepens as they age. While it's true that sexual desire and function may decrease with age, it doesn't mean an end to a fulfilling sex life. In some cases, couples need only to modify their sexual activities to fit their abilities or change their beliefs about what constitutes a meaningful sexual relationship.

Sexual changes in men

Millions of men experience hormonal changes that result in emotional and physical changes. For example, older men may notice that it takes longer to achieve and maintain an erection than it used to. Many fear that a delayed or partial erection may be a sign of impotence, when in fact, erectile difficulties are extremely common among men of all ages.

It's worth noting that all men experience impotence at some point during their lives. In most cases, the problem is only temporary and the worst thing a man can do is obsess over it.

Experts say it is important for a couple to be able to discuss the situation and temporarily shift the emphasis away from intercourse to other intimate acts such as kissing, hugging and caressing.

Problems with erections can be caused by many factors, including diabetes, atherosclerosis, alcohol consumption, obesity, smoking and the use of certain drugs, including antidepressants and blood pressure medication.

The good news is that erectile dysfunction, or impotence, is highly treatable. Perhaps most noteworthy in this category is Viagra, the highly touted drug that increases a man's natural response to sexual stimulation. Taken one hour before sexual activity, the pill stimulates the chemicals that cause an erection, allowing blood to flow to the penis during sexual activity. Unlike other treatments, Viagra stimulates erections only during sexual arousal.

While Viagra has been shown to have a high success rate — 65 percent to 88 percent — it isn't a panacea. Often there are psychological forces at work that can cause impotence. Anxiety about money, health, work or the relationship itself can prompt a variety of sexual problems.

Sexual changes in women

Many women mistakenly believe that once they hit menopause, their sex life is over. While there are certain hormonal changes that occur during menopause, there is no reason to equate menopause with a loss of femininity or sexuality. Many women find that the freedom from menstruation, contraception and child-rearing makes sex more relaxed and pleasurable.

Post-menopausal women may notice a decrease in vaginal lubrication, which often occurs as a result of declining levels of estrogen. With less lubrication, it may take longer for a woman to feel aroused and she may find intercourse painful.

There are many ways to combat this problem, including estrogen therapy and the use of a vaginal lubricant. Fortunately for women, the ability to experience orgasm doesn't decline with age.

Women who have had a hysterectomy, mastectomy or bladder surgery often worry that it will affect sexual activity or that they will be less desirable to their partner. In reality, there is no reason not to resume your sex life after surgery, nor is there any reason to assume that you are less attractive to your mate.

In the National Council on the Aging study, nine out of 10 respondents said the most important qualities they seek in a romantic partner are a high moral character, a pleasant personality, intelligence and a good sense of humor. Physical appearance, cultural sophistication and social status were among the least important attributes.

Sexual changes for couples

Many couples are concerned that certain illnesses or conditions may preclude them from having sex.

According to experts, even the most serious diseases rarely warrant stopping sexual activity. It's not uncommon for seniors to give up sex after a heart attack, fearing that it may prompt another heart attack. In reality, an active sex life may actually decrease the risk of a future heart attack. Similarly, strokes rarely affect sexual function and it is unlikely that sexual exertion will cause another stroke.

Of course, there are some conditions or illnesses that may make intercourse difficult or impossible, but there are many ways to show affection for your partner, such as touching, stroking or kissing.