Sex and ageing: this is a conversation we should have

WE NEED to have a chat about sex for older Australians because it's time we got up front about how it can be a positive experience if practised safely.

Feeling better about yourself and improving your quality of life, alleviating depression, increasing life satisfaction and general wellbeing are all important outcomes of an active sexual life for ageing Australians states researcher Dr Sue Malta, from the National Ageing Research Institute and University of Melbourne.

"I think the most important thing is remaining sexual, whether you are partnered or on your own," Dr Malta said.

"Society has tended to cringe about older people being sexual. A lot of today's older people grew up in an era when sex wasn't talked about, and masturbation was actively discouraged, so a lot of older men and women probably wouldn't feel comfortable that they can explore their own bodies if they are on their own or with a partner."

She has found that as more older people are getting divorced, they are looking for and entering new relationships. The advent of online dating has also opened the door to older people realising they can again be sexually engaged.

Dr Malta counselled that this voyage of discovery and enjoyment should include practising safer sex with the help of condoms as sexually transmitted infections are still an issue, even in later life.

Enjoying sex at an older age can be redefined as people take their physical limitations and disabilities into account. It doesn't have to involve intercourse, it may involve 'outercourse'.

"There are all sorts of ways you can have sex," Dr Malta said. "It's not just about intercourse; it can be doing other things that give you pleasure and make you feel good."

Women can find that after menopause they discover a resurgence in sexual feeling. "It's not like menopause means the end of your sex life," Dr Malta said. "In some ways, it's just the beginning. Some women during and after menopause might have a heightened sex drive and others who have lost the inclination, regain it. It's not all the doom and gloom we have believed it to be."

Dr Malta also said some women feel they have lost their sexual drive when they no longer have a partner, but in fact it could be dormant and with practice or with the help of stimulating tools, they can rediscover it.

"Research shows that people into their 80s, 90s and beyond can remain sexually active and sexually interested," Dr Malta said.

She recommends a visit to a sex shop where a range of items are on offer that can assist with sexual experiences, and where she has found the staff are often pleasant, caring and knowledgeable.

A good lubricant is also recommended by Dr Malta. "There are certain ones that you shouldn't be using such as petroleum jelly, and there are some that are better for you depending on what you want them for," she said.

"If you are using a vibrator, you want one that doesn't harm the silicone. Older women also have to be careful which lubricant they choose, as some of them can be irritating." Joan Price's website has a lot of helpful information including lubricant names. Her blog address is

Dr Malta and her team at Melbourne University are hoping to develop a comprehensive website containing information on all issues relating to sexuality and ageism through its Sexual Health and Ageing Perspectives and Education (SHAPE) project.

While that project waits for further funding to facilitate development of tools for consumers and clinicians to access, Dr Malta recommends seniors look for information on the Jean Hailes Foundation and Andrology Australia websites.

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