08.10.12

Meryl Streep, ‘Hope Springs,’ and Senior Sex: Why Seniors Are Getting It On

Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones play sexually active older folks in the new flick ‘Hope Springs.’ Similar stories are being played out across America as more folks in their 60s, 70s, and 80s are having sex.

No matter where we stand on the economy, gay marriage, and health care, we can all agree on this: We’re in the middle of a senior (sex) moment. Everywhere you look, seniors—from survivors of World War II to survivors of Woodstock and Vietnam—are doing it.

There’s Meryl Streep fondling Tommy Lee Jones (and herself) in Hope Springs. And there’s 72-year-old actor Fred Willard getting busted for masturbating at an “adult” movie theater. And there’s Aviva’s sex-crazed dad, George, on Real Housewives of New York, poking his erection in Sonja’s back. And there’s the viewed-by-1.2 million-YouTube watchers safersex4seniors.org video, showing granny and grandpa types in Kama Sutra positions. (They’re fully clothed, thankfully.) There even are senior-citizen porn videos, including threesomes.

So much for senior sex as the last taboo.

“This group came of age at a time when it was OK to enjoy sexuality, make movies about it, and sing songs about it,” says Melanie Davis, coordinator for SaferSex4Seniors.org and co-president of the sexuality and aging consortium at Widener University. “Boomers aren’t about to shut down their sexuality simply because society expects older adults to be sexless.

That’s why Americans in their 60s, 70s, and 80s are having sex—and talking about it. “The people who were somewhat older and somewhat younger experienced ‘make love not war,’” says Pepper Schwartz, 67, AARP’s sex and relationships expert and the author of books such as Finding Your Perfect Match, The Lifetime Love and Sex Quiz Book, and Love Between Equals. “Those lessons of life, that cultural revolution, didn’t end with their youth.”

Everything from Hollywood depictions to online dating sites that welcome older people to pharmaceutical game changers such as Viagra has made senior sex a cultural phenomenon. “That belief that you can fall in love, that your passion is not foolish, that you’re not ridiculous for wanting a partner—that’s what we’re seeing a sea change in,” says Schwartz, who just got engaged six weeks ago to a man she met on an online dating site six years ago. “I feel very girlish about it, very happy.”

So are old people having sex? Yes, according to the AARP’s sex, romance, and relationship surveys, and according to studies by professors at places like the University of Chicago.

“That belief that you can fall in love, that passion is not foolish, that you’re not ridiculous for wanting a partner—that’s what we’re seeing a sea change in.”

The University of Chicago’s survey, published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2007 and part of the National Social Life Health and Aging Project, found that sexual activity declined with age. It was 73 percent among 57-to- 64-year-olds, 53 percent among 65-to-74-year-olds, and 26 percent among 75-to-85-year-olds. The most common problems among women were low desire (43 percent), followed by difficulty with vaginal lubrication (39 percent). For men, the biggest problem was erectile difficulties (37 percent).

The AARP’s most recent survey, conducted in 2009, found that 28 percent of respondents had sexual intercourse at least once a week and 40 percent at least once a month; 22 percent masturbated at least once a month. (Willard just chose to self-stimulate more publicly than most.) The AARP survey also found that three in 10 male respondents had some degree of erectile dysfunction— but medicine came to the rescue. “They’re the Viagra generation,” says Dr. Paul Turek, a urologist who is director and founder of the Turek Clinic, a men’s-health facility in San Francisco. Older men can be like an older Ferrari, he says. “It’s simple biology and simple mechanics. You fix it all up, and they run really hard.”

Video screenshot

Not all ages of seniors are alike. The World War II generation, in their 80s, is less open about talking about sex, says Dr. William Dale, chief of geriatrics and palliative medicine at the University of Chicago. Sixty-somethings are another story. “That generation is much more comfortable with their sexuality,” he says.

Indeed. In the gone-viral 31-second PSA for safersex4seniors.org, ad creator DDB New York showed good sex positions for seniors while drumming home the use-a-condom message. Seniors, no longer worried about pregnancy, forget about STDs and mistakenly think they don’t need prophylactics. There may be a followup, though nothing has been announced. “We’re being highly sought after to do more,” says Peter Hempel, CEO of DDB New York. (He notes that the actors in the video “had a great time doing it.”)

There are videos—and then there are movies. Sure, some in past decades touched on seniors and sex. But they did it passingly (think On Golden Pond in 1981) or unrealistically (think Harold and Maude in 1971, with a 20-year-old guy sleeping with a 79¾-year-old he met at a funeral). Better: Something’s Gotta Give and last year’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, with Norman Cousins’s character playing a Viagra-packing rogue.

Which brings us back to Hope Springs. In it, Meryl Streep, who is 63, plays a married-for-30-years woman who has been sexless for a half decade. She signs up for a week-long therapy session with her movie husband, Tommy Lee Jones, who is 65—the same age as Streep’s real-life husband, Don Gummer.  (The stars chat amiably about sex and other topics in “Fighting for Love,” the cover story of the current AARP The Magazine.)

“Just having them [Streep and Jones] as romantic leads pleases me to no end,” says the AARP’s Schwartz. “We’ve seen older men as romantic leads with women old enough to be their daughters or granddaughters.” Like Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson in Something’s Gotta Give, Streep and Jones actually are close in age and not laughable. “They’re winsome and attractive people,” says Schwartz. “We’re not embarrassed by them.”

And of course, sex for seniors got a big boost from erectile dysfunction drugs, pitched by macho men like former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka. “You don’t have to be worried about being seen as less than masculine when someone like Mike Ditka or Bob Dole says, ‘This really helped my life,’” says Schwartz. “It’s a great way of getting men to look into this and not feel, ‘I could never do that.’”

“Some of those men have withdrawn because of embarrassment, and they can be back in the game,” she add. “It’s made a huge change.”

Seniors also can buy products like vibrators without feeling public shame. “It’s available in places that don’t make people feel like somebody’s going to open a raincoat in front of them,” says Schwartz.

Online dating also makes it easier for seniors to find partners. “This way doesn’t make it feel like too much work,” Schwartz notes.

It’s also publicly acceptable to use the sites—and to talk about sex. “Yes, we are doing it, and it’s good for us,” says psychologist Dorree Lynn, author of Sex for Grownups: Dr. Lynn Reveals the Truth, Lies and Must-Tries for Great Sex After 50, and herself a 71-year-old married grandma who is sexually active. “People with good sexual relationships and sexuality actually are healthier and live longer.” It is, she notes, good exercise. (And it’s more fun than an exercise bike.)

Older-age sex is different, but that’s OK. “Sex is more than penetration,” says Lynn. “Sometimes it involves a lot of touching.” And it can require innovative new positions because of health issues such as arthritis or hip replacements, she says.

Senior sex still can embarrass offspring. Lynn’s 33-year-old tells people her mother writes and talks about relationships—but doesn’t mention the word “sex.” “It’s too much for her,” says Lynn.

People who had more sex when they were young are more likely to have it when they’re old. So are people with a partner. Their sex is just different. “Both males and females require a little bit more foreplay to become fully aroused as they get older,” says Dr. Gary Kennedy, 63, director of geriatric psychiatry at Montefiore Medical Center. “That’s not a bad thing.”

They also need to keep at it. “Use it or lose it,” says Kennedy. “It’s both a blessing and a curse. It’s a curse if you have a stroke, heart attack, or hip fracture that makes it difficult for you to maintain your sexual activity. It means you need to recondition yourself. Sex is a little bit like physical activity. You need to maintain it.” That’s true for men, and for women, who can get vaginal atrophy.

Seniors no longer feel the “evolutionary imperative to reproduce,” says Kennedy. “That biological component is not as strong.”

They also need to understand that “sex is about intimacy and pleasure rather than achieving orgasms every time you have an encounter,” says Kennedy.

He likes the Jones and Streep model. “They’re healthy seniors,” he says. “That’s more the way we should be thinking about aging than the person in the walker.” Most seniors are independent. Only 5 percent of people 65 and older are in nursing homes, he notes.

Sexually active seniors are healthier, and healthier seniors are more likely to have sex. “It goes in both directions,” says University of Chicago gynecologist Stacy Lindau, lead author of a 2007 study in The New England Journal of Medicine on seniors and their sex lives. Of course, they need to practice safe sex—always, but notably in “closed populations” such as retirement communities where people may share partners and make it easier for infections to spread.

Most seniors today are healthy enough to still have sex, too. “Most people in their 60s and 70s in a society of affluence remain remarkably healthy in their 60s and 70s,” says University of Pittsburgh geriatrician Stephanie Studenski. “The major reason older women are not active sexually is because they do not have an available and able partner. The majority of older women will report that they have an interest in sexuality but that they do not have access.”

Sometimes male partners are ill or on medications, such as some antidepressants or blood-pressure medications, that can interfere with sexual function, says Studenski.

As for Willard, the public masturbator, he poked fun at himself on Jimmy Fallon’s show. Fallon asked him, “The movie you went to see, was it The Firm, was it Free Willy?” Willard responded, “Sadly, it was Get Shorty.”