The 2017 Oscar-nominated documentary Edith+Eddie tells the story of Edith Hill and Eddie Harrison, who marry in their mid-90s and become known online as "America’s oldest interracial couple". More than an inspiring love story, theirs also is a cautionary and heart-breaking tale about the state of elder justice and guardianship in the US as Hill's daughters battle over her care and the wishes of the couple to remain together. More →
The thought of older adults being interested in sex can be difficult for young adults to comprehend. Ageism driven discomfort and silence towards this topic have devastating implications. Undergraduate students are well positioned to become allies who can fight ageism, champion the right to healthy sexual expression in later life and expose the risks of sexual elder abuse. Tackling this topic is difficult and will take purposeful engagement from students and professors.
As an undergraduate student who is majoring in gerontology, I believe that sexuality does not, and should not, have an age cutoff. Despite this, I was flabbergasted when my 79 year old grandmother spoke very publicly with me about her sexual desires over lunch recently. I tried to respect my grandmother as a human being with sexual needs, desires, and rights, but I left lunch feeling confused. I knew that it was ageist to presume that older adults have lost all interest in sex, and was aware of the risks involved with that assumption, but the idea of my grandmother having sex was still uncomfortable.
Students enrolled in undergraduate programs often take developmental psychology, lifespan sociology, and aging and gerontology courses, which present ideal opportunities to delve into the intersections of aging, sexuality and ageism. Research shows that the attitudes of undergraduate students towards sexuality in later life, as well as other aspects of aging, become more positive through exposure to these realms.1 Educating students about sexuality and aging should begin with breaking down the misconceptions that feed ageist attitudes (e.g., that it is normal to experience sexual impairment, that older adults do not have an interest in being sexually active, that sexual activity is dangerous in later life, etc.). From there, curricula should cover the dangerous implications of our society failing to discuss sexuality and aging.
Silence on this topic:
- Devalues and dehumanizes older adults by undermining their ability to express themselves as sexual beings. For lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) older adults, this can compound experiences of discrimination.
- Inhibits communication about sexual activity among older adults and their doctors, caregivers, close friends and family members, which increases the likelihood that sexual elder abuse will go undetected. NYCEAC dedicated a blog to the importance of elder justice professionals talking about sex with their older adult clients.
- Eliminates important opportunities for education and discussion about sexuality amongst older adults, including issues of sexual health and identity.
It’s also important to highlight the personal relevance of this topic to all people. We are all aging and will become older adults in the future. I ask all young adults to imagine how life would feel if everyone we encounter – like family members, a physician or people at a party – thinks we are crazy for wanting to maintain a healthy and active sexual life as an older adult. And what if we are in danger, but no one thinks to help because of denial that older adults can experience sexual violence?
Students are the professionals of the future, will care for older adults in their personal lives and will, unfortunately, one day face the stigma and challenges of sexuality in later life. However, if introduced to the topic as part of their undergraduate course work, students can become part of the necessary force for change. Professionals, elder justice advocates and older adults also stand to gain from any increased public awareness and engagement on this topic. The elder justice field should work with colleges and relevant faculty to capitalize on the opportunity to target a concentrated population of potential future advocates.
By Zoe Eisenberg, NYCEAC 2014 Risk and Resiliency Internship Project Intern and Edited by Sarah Dion, NYCEAC Program Assistant
Cultivating New Elder Justice Professionals: The Risk & Resiliency Internship Project
Why is it important for elder justice professionals to talk about sex with older clients?
Exploring the Sexual Rights of Older Adults: Toward Healthy Sexuality and Freedom from Victimization in Later Life
Elder Abuse & LGBT Older Adults: Recent News & Research
- Shannon Freeman, Sarah Sousa & Eva Neufeld (2014) Sexuality in Later Life:Examining Beliefs and Perceptions of Undergraduate Students, Gerontology & Geriatrics Education, 35:2, 200-213. [↩]