How Baby Boomers maintain their sex lives

By David Ludden Ph.D.

It used to be that sex after 60 was a rare occurrence. People suffered from more health problems back then, and they died much earlier than they do today. Those couples that did make it to old age tended to be companions rather than lovers.

However, medical advances in the twenty-first century have challenged former notions of sexless seniorhood. We’re healthier, and we live much longer, such that 60 is the new 50, if not even the new 40. As the Baby Boomers enter their senior years, many are finding that physical intimacy with their partner is still an important aspect of their married life—and they’ve got the stamina for it as well.

Nevertheless, sex gets more problematic as we age. Sexual desire often wanes among long-married couples. Likewise, older men suffer more erectile dysfunction, while post-menopausal women can experience dryness or difficulties reaching orgasm.

Prior research has shown that older couples vary considerably when it comes to frequency of intimate contact, with some having sex once or twice a week while others do it once or twice month, if not less frequently. Yet, it’s still not clear what factors in an older couples’ daily life make it more likely that they will have sex on a given day. This is the question that Brigham Young University psychologist Chelom Leavitt and colleagues explored in a recent article published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

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For this study, Leavitt and colleagues recruited 191 “Baby Boomer” couples, all in their early sixties, to take part in a two-week diary study. Each partner individually filled out a paper-and-pencil survey every night before bed for 14 days. These surveys asked about a number of aspects of everyday married life and the couple’s sexual activity.

It’s already known that good health is important for maintaining a regular sex life in the senior years. Therefore, Leavitt and colleagues followed what is known as the “biopsychosocial” model of health. This approach recognizes that good health isn’t just a physical or “biological” issue. Rather, it also contains aspects of healthy psychological functioning as well as supportive social relationships. Furthermore, these three aspects of health—biological, psychological, and social—all interact with each other.

The data showed that the likelihood of sexual intimacy in older adults was related to all three of these health aspects. From a biological perspective, Leavitt and colleagues found that couples are more likely to engage in sex when the husband is feeling well-rested. However, the researchers also note that “spillover effects” of negative events in his life or within the marriage could quickly dampen the mood for intimacy.

More important from a biological perspective was daily physical activity. Since physical activity boosts mood as well as sexual desire, this finding is not surprising. Moreover, people who are physically active are generally more in tune with their body and more aware of their sexual needs. Interestingly, a few respondents even counted sex as part of their physical exercise routine.

From a psychological perspective, positive mood was associated with an increased likelihood that sex would occur, while negative mood was associated with decreased likelihood. The researchers noted, however, that it wasn’t clear from the data which came first, good mood or sex. After all, the participants responded to each survey before going to bed, indicating their level of positive and negative mood as well as whether they’d had sex. It could be they had sex because they were in a good mood, or it could be they were in a good mood because they’d just had sex.

From a social perspective, both receiving and giving emotional support was associated with increased likelihood of sex that day. Both husbands and wives reported more physical intimacy on days when they’d received support from their spouse. It’s quite reasonable to think that loving kindness from your partner can put you in the mood.

One interesting finding here is that couples were also more likely to have sex on days in which the wife provided emotional support for her husband, even when he provided none in return. The researchers suspect that many of these couples still subscribe to traditional gender scripts, which view women as caregivers for their husbands.

Leavitt and colleagues do point out an important limitation of this study: All participants were White, well-educated, financially secure, relationally satisfied, and living in the northwest region of the United States. This means we need to be careful in extrapolating these findings to couples that don’t fit this demographic.

Nevertheless, there are some important take-home messages for many older partners who would like to improve their sex lives. First and foremost, the results of this study illustrate the importance of daily physical activity. Not only does it improve physical health, it also boosts mood, both of which are vital for a happy sex life.

Likewise, this study teaches us the importance of being there for our spouses and giving them emotional support when they need it. Clearly, it’s these loving acts of kindness in our daily married lives that puts ourselves—and our partners—into the mood for making love.

Dr David Ludden is a professor of psychology at Georgia Gwinnett College. He received his Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from the University of Iowa, and he is the author of two books, The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach and A History of Modern Psychology: The Quest for a Science of the Mind.

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