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Article • Aging as a Couple - A View on Sexuality

20 September 2016
Myriam Gauvreau

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Translated by Zoe Yarymowich


Empirical and clinical research on the topic of elderly couples is scarce in gerontology, despite the marital and family bond often taking on greater importance as we age, and social and professional roles fade and become less significant (Riley, 1985). According to the Institut de la Statistique du Québec (2013), the average life expectancy at birth in Quebec crosses the threshold of 80 years (men: 80.2 years; women: 84.1 years) and continues to increase. Not only are seniors living longer, but life expectancy in good health, either without physical or mental disability, is also increasing. In 2006, it had reached 67.4 years (Institut de la Statistique du Québec, 2012).

Thus, elderly couples today can expect to live in relatively good health for decades after they stop working and their children leave the home. One of the consequences of the increase in life expectancy is that adults now spend significantly more time as a couple as compared to the previous century (Schoen & Weinick, 1993). It appears that one’s partner is often the most significant person, taking the role of confidant, companion for activities, source of support, or caregiver for the sick spouse (Burgess, 2004).

Aging and the Couple

Old age presents challenges and many changes that require a significant capacity to adapt, given the state of one’s physical health and professional, familial, and social issues (Freund, 2008). A couple living through this life transition is affected and their relationship is subject to its weight. Thus, aging forces seniors to face many changes, including the inevitable but gradual changes in physical appearance, reduced functional autonomy, chronic diseases, or the death of the partner (Amyot, 2008).

Ageism and Sexuality

Another difficulty faced by the elderly is the ageist attitudes of society, which maintain negative prejudices about the sexuality of people in this age group, which can go as far as denying the existence and importance of the sexual needs of seniors (Bélanger et al., 2013). This can be explained in particular by the negative social representations that the media convey about aging and the elderly (Pellissier, 2009).

For example, a Quebec study examined the attitudes of healthcare workers concerning the sexuality of older adults (Bélanger et al., 2013). It was found that sexuality, as part of the aging process, is an aspect often neglected and overlooked by clinicians who hold false beliefs and prejudices related to age (Lagacé, 2010). A lack of knowledge about the sexuality of seniors and their specific needs is also reported (Bélanger et al., 2013).

Sexuality as a Need

Sexuality represents a vital aspect in the life of a couple and it occupies an essential place in the regulation of the quality of the dyadic relationship. From puberty, regardless of age and condition, the need for privacy and closeness remains present. Even in terminally ill patients, a third of couples will continue to have sexual relations up until a few weeks before the patient’s death (Sankar, 1999).

Therefore, it would be wrong to believe that aging is systematically associated with a gradual withdrawal from sexual life. In fact, several studies support that sexual functioning and desire in older people persist while changing (DeLamater & Sill, 2005; Trudel & Goldfarb, 2006).

Factors Influencing Sexuality

Physiological changes associated with aging occur in both men and women. They all have an effect on the sexual response, but as Sharpe (2004) reveals, age is not the only causal factor for sexual dysfunction; there is also disease.

In addition, like biological factors, the development, and expression of sexuality are influenced by psychological (personality, self-esteem, etc.) and social (education, family and social environment, and ageism) factors (Rothenberg & Dupras, 2010). Attitudes toward sexuality and previous sexual history play a role in the sexual life of older adults (Trudel et al., 2010). For example, individuals who were sexually active during their youth report a greater frequency of sexual relations as they advance in age (Trudel et al., 2010; Trudel et al., 2014). Having a partner determines the presence or absence of sexual activity, especially in women (Lindau et al., 2007).

Sexual Functioning in Older Adults

It is possible to quantify sexual desire in terms of the frequency of intercourse or conceive it further regarding the importance and interest given to sexuality (DeLamater & Sill, 2005). The study by Gott and Hinchliff (2003) focuses specifically on the importance of sexuality in older couples. This study supports the idea that older couples attach importance to sexuality. It also seems that even if their coital sexual activities become less frequent, non-genital sexuality (hugs, kisses, etc.) becomes increasingly important (Jarrousse, 1995; Trudel & Goldfarb, 2006). The work of Trudel and colleagues (Trudel et al., 2000; Trudel et al., 2010) support that relational variables linked to sexuality, in particular, sexual communication (tendency to openly express one’s needs, desires, and preferences at the sexual level), significantly predicted sexual functioning in those over 65 years.

Finally, even if older people report having less penetrative sexual activity than younger individuals, they nonetheless report being satisfied with the sexual dimension of their lives (Brecher, 1984). It seems, therefore, that important changes are occurring in the conception of sexuality among older adults, as well as in the expression of desire (Trudel et al., 2014).


There are several aspects of the world of elderly marital relationships that remain unknown. In recent decades, the lives of couples have undergone so many changes that researchers and clinicians are faced with major challenges. Indeed, it is a question of better understanding the issues associated with the emergence of new realities and problems in elderly couples in a context where the negative consequences are amplified by aging and are more complex because of the heterogeneity of this population. It is, therefore, necessary to continue researching elderly couples to be able to respond adequately to any request for help.


To cite this article :

Gauvreau, M. (2016, September 20). Aging as a Couple - A View on Sexuality. Les 3 sex*https://les3sex.com/en/news/251/chronique-vieillissement-et-couple-regard-sur-la-sexualite- 

elderly, elderly couples, gerontology, old age, transition, ageism, prejudice, need, privacy, proximity, sexual functioning, changes, Myriam Gauvreau


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