Love is in the air πŸ’— Relationships, intimacy, and social connection for the over 50s

With Valentine's Day on the horizon, Dr Sharron Hinchliff has shared some thoughts about love, the different connections in our lives, and the significance of intimate and sexual relationships as we grow older. #SexRightsAge

Relationships are a central part of life.

And while they take many forms (as a sister, brother, parent, friend, work colleague) one of the most significant we have is that with our intimate other – our partner, our spouse, our lover. These relationships can be meaningful in a multitude of ways; in particular they provide companionship and can prevent loneliness. A recent report from the community interest group What Works for Well-being (June 2019) found that people who were separated, divorced, widowed, or single showed the highest levels of loneliness and lowest levels of well-being.

The benefits we get from intimate relationships are similar to those we get from other social connections, such as friendships and community groups, and it can be difficult to know where any differences lie. For example, oxytocin (a powerful hormone and neurotransmitter) is released during sexual activity at orgasm and through physical intimacy, but it is also released during non-sexual contact such as having a hug.

Oxytocin can increase relaxation and reduce stress, as well as influence social bonding.

Other neurochemicals, dopamine and serotonin, connect with the pleasure and reward part of our brains and are released when we engage in activities we enjoy including sex.

The science of intimate contact is backed-up by research that has asked people about the benefits of intimacy and/or sex. Older adults report positive outcomes for psychological well-being, such as reduced stress and better mood, and positive outcomes for their relationship such as feeling more connected and having less arguments. One benefit of intimate contact is feeling desired, which can boost self-esteem, and can be especially important in a society which associates sexual attractiveness and expression only with young people.

The benefits of intimacy and sex apply to adults at any age, but older adults can face challenges that are related to age discrimination within society. There are structural barriers to connecting socially with others, which prevent older adults from meeting a new partner. This is starting to change as, for example, online dating sites and apps now specifically cater for the over 50s. But not everyone finds them suitable in terms of usability, likeability, and partner-matching, with many older adults preferring the in-person approach to meeting romantic partners.

Through the very act of togetherness, there is a close relationship between intimacy and social connection but the picture is not straightforward.

We can have a partner yet still experience emotional loneliness especially if we feel rejected. We can be in good health without being intimate or sexually active. We can reap the benefits of social connection without a romantic involvement.

Yet as the majority of older adults remain intimate or sexually active in some way, we need to recognise the value of these connections and the potential benefit for health and well-being. It is important that service providers are aware of this. We have found in our research that they often find the topic difficult to address with older adults because it is private, there is a taboo around sex and ageing, and they have not received training.

So my advice to anyone who wants to talk to their nurse or doctor about a sexual issue but are unsure how to bring it up, is to mention the Age, Sex and You website. This is a free public health website dedicated to sexual issues and ageing, which can also be used as a tool to help start the conversation. Read more about it here.

Written by Dr Sharron HinchliffΒ 
Sharron leads a programme of research at Sheffield University which explores ageing, sexual health, sexual well-being, intimate relationships, and psychological factors of health.