Sex after 50: How to have intimacy again later in life

Dating at any age can be tough, but it can be even harder if you’re an older adult getting back on the scene after a long hiatus.

In Canada, there are more adults aged 50 and over who are divorced or separated than there were in the past. According to 2011 government data — the latest available — about one in five Canadians in their late 50s had split from their spouses (22 per cent of women and 19 per cent of men).

This was a jump from 30 years prior, when under seven per cent of this population was divorced.

“There are [more] people who are widowed, divorced, or have been dumped, or maybe they independently thought, ‘Huh, maybe life can be better than this,’ so they do the dumping,” Joan Price, a senior sex expert and author of The Ultimate Guide to Sex After Fifty, said to Global News.

“Many older people married quite early, and after being with the same person for 40 or 50 years, you can’t guarantee that you are going to change in the same direction as someone else.”

As a result of this societal shift, more older adults are finding themselves single again later in life — and having to learn how to date in a changing landscape.

“One of the shifts now is that we don’t think our lives are over at 50 or 60,” Price said. “We realize that we are still capable of having full lives and new relationships, and maybe something more satisfying.”

The fear of initiating intimacy

While it’s increasingly common for older adults to “get back out there,” it’s normal for people to feel anxious about intimacy — especially if they had been with the same partner for decades.

Price, who also teaches an older adult dating workshop, said that many folks don’t even know how to meet new people, let alone initiate sex with them.

“A lot of the concern is, ‘How do I find someone who is right for me?’” she said. “We’re not really ready to put up with someone who isn’t right for us … We have a better sense of who we are now than we ever did in our 20s.”

When it comes to sex, anxiety over body issues and performance are common. “One of the biggest concerns [people have], Is anyone going to find me desirable? Am I going to find someone desirable?” Price explained.

How to talk about what you want

To deal with these concerns in a healthy way, Price said communication is vital. If you’re anxious about having sex, it’s important to acknowledge that. While every relationship progresses differently, if you’re obviously physically interested in each other, it’s good to be upfront.

“Often, what is coming up with a new couple is embarrassment or fear of divulging the things that are going on for them sexually,” Price explained.

Someone who hasn’t had penetrative sex for 10 years and thinks it will hurt, or someone who doesn’t have dependable erections and has performance anxiety are a few common instances of sexual anxiety, Price said.

“Maybe someone has been with one partner for 45 years, and here’s this absolutely brand new body and mind, and [they] don’t know what to do with it,” she added. “There’s so many huge issues that if they go wrong, they can derail the relationship entirely.”

To avoid such problems, Price said having a conversation right off the bat about sex can help. She suggests sitting your partner down for a chat and telling them that you want to talk about each other’s experiences, preferences, fears and desires.

“Maybe you say, ‘Before we get sexual, there’s some things I want to tell you about myself, and I want to hear what you want to tell me about yourself, so let’s set aside some time to have this conversation, which I admit to you is going to be hard for me,’” she said.

“Setting it up that way means you don’t have to worry about how to bring it up.”

If you’re not comfortable talking about sex with your new partner, you might want to explore seeing a counsellor or sex therapist to unpack your concerns. If you are comfortable addressing sexual issues with a partner, a couples’ counsellor can still help partners learn how to talk about “the elephants in the room.”

While they can be hard, honest conversations lead to better and more enjoyable sex, Price said. This is especially true for people who have been with one partner for the majority of their lives, and are learning how to share intimacy with someone new.

“The important thing is to have a level of trust where you feel like you can talk about these things,” Price said. “If you can’t talk about these things, is it really time to invite this person into your body?”

Don’t make sex all or nothing

Getting intimate with someone doesn’t need to happen all at once, Price said. In fact, it can be helpful to move at a pace that’s most comfortable for you, and progress your level of sexual intimacy as your relationship deepens.

“When you start getting sexual, don’t make it an all-or-nothing thing,” Price said. “You might say, ‘Let’s just explore each other without any goals,’ or, ‘We won’t have penetrative sex this first time’ … That can take so much of the pressure off, and be really fun and hot.”

Sex gets better with age

While it’s normal for sex to spark anxiety at first, there’s research to suggest that sex gets better the older you get.

Price echoes this stance, and said since older adults know themselves better and understand their bodies, they can have more fulfilling sex lives than they did in their youth.

“Sex as an older person is not the same as sex as a younger person … as we are not driven by hormones,” she explained.

“You might think that is a bad thing … but what is wonderful about not being driven by hormones is we don’t have to be so goal-oriented. We are not fertile, we’re not hormonal; we’re having sex because we really enjoy it, for the pleasure.”

What doesn’t change with age, Price said, is the need to practise safe sex.

“You need to be able to say, ‘Before we take this any further, we need to decide what safer sex barriers do we want to use.’ Not if we are going to, not show me your test results, but assume yes, we are going to use barrier protection,” she said.

“Be proactive about it, and don’t leave any of it to chance.”

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