PEOPLE are having sex well into their 80s, says Professor Agnes Higgins of Trinity College Dublin. Research in the US showed that half of over 60s were sexually active and Prof Higgins asks simply: "why would we be any different?"
A decrease in sexual desire as a normal part of the ageing process is a myth and simply "not true", says Prof Higgins, who is head of the School of Nursing and Midwifery and Associate Professor of Mental Health at Trinity.
There is no biological or physiological reason for a person's desire to engage in sex to diminish with age.
"There is a change with age," she admits, adding that both men a women go through physical changes in their sexual response but this can be countered with simple remedies.
But "lack of opportunity" caused by bereavement of the life partner is one reason why people aren't sexually active as they would want to be later in life.
An internalised ageist value is another cause for a decrease in sexual activity as people feel they "shouldn't be having sex". Sex is portrayed as the preserve of youth in the media and older people are written out of research and sexual policy documents, says Prof Higgins.
Older people aren't mentioned in World Health Organisation documents on sexual health. Poor physical health, relationship issues, financial worries and body image concerns also contribute to a decrease in sexual engagement. The focus on older people and sexual health is often on dysfunction rather than desire. For men it's erectile dysfunction and for women it's post-menopause issues.
Prof Higgins thinks that people who are physically healthy and either dating or in secure relationships don't stop having sex at 60.
A change in personal and public opinion is what's needed to overcome the view that older people don't have sex. Older people should give themselves permission to enjoy sex and renew their relationships, she advises.
She also emphasised that not all older people are heterosexual and whilst there's an invisibility of them being sexually active, there is a complete invisibility around the older LGBT community.
Another important question to ask is "how are the intimacy and relationship needs" of people in nursing homes being met, states Prof Higgins.