Human beings naturally crave intimacy, and this need doesn’t diminish as we grow older.
Positive intimate relationships have been linked with numerous health benefits, such as lower blood pressure and reduced stress.
While age can bring barriers to intimacy, there are steps you can take to create a deeper connection with your partner.
All humans have a natural desire for intimacy, or a sense of closeness and familiarity with other people. Emotional intimacy happens when we care deeply about someone else, feel a sense of trust, share similar values, and are able to express ourselves freely. Physical intimacy refers to acts of touch like hugging, cuddling, hand-holding, and sexual intercourse.
In an intimate relationship, you feel valued and connected to your partner on an intellectual, emotional, and physical level. This need for intimacy doesn't decrease with age. In fact, it’s vitally important to our well-being as older adults.
What are the benefits of intimacy in older adults?
Positive and passionate romantic relationships are not only fulfilling at any age; they've been associated with real health benefits. These include lower stress levels, better healing after surgery, healthier behaviors, and even a longer lifespan. Intimacy has even been found to ward off depression. Physical affection has been linked to lower resting blood pressure and higher levels of oxytocin, a feel-good hormone. In contrast, seniors in relationships that lack physical and emotional closeness are more likely to feel lonely and have a poor sense of self-worth.
Barriers to intimacy for seniors
In older adults, there are a number of emotional, cognitive, and physical issues that can hinder our ability to be intimate with a partner.
- Emotional factors: Seniors may shoulder the weight of both past emotional wounds and present-day stressors. The pain and grief brought on by unresolved relationship conflicts, divorce, illness, and death can lead to issues with trust and commitment and make us less emotionally available. If you’re struggling with emotional roadblocks, confiding in a trusted close friend or trained counselor can help you tackle these obstacles head-on.
- Cognitive factors: Aging can bring on short- or long-term cognitive issues—such as memory impairment—that impact the way you interact with your partner. Depression, for example, can affect your self-esteem and cause you to lose interest in sex. Making an effort to create everyday moments of intimacy—such as snuggling while watching a movie—can help you strengthen that intimate connection with your partner.
- Physical factors: The changes happening to our bodies as we age can pose an obstacle to sexual intimacy. These changes may range from vaginal dryness and decreased libido in women to erectile dysfunction in men. Chronic pain, limited mobility, and recovery from surgery are other potential barriers to physical closeness. Overcoming these challenges may require assistance from tools such as skin-safe sex toys, lubricants, and sexual play (trying different sexual positions and props). Experimentation is also key—try a variety of aids and approaches until you find a combination that works well for you and your partner.
Our own perception of our body can also stand in the way of sexual intimacy. Particularly in today's image-conscious society where emphasis is placed on appearance, we tend to be highly critical of the way we look. A negative self-perception—feeling unattractive and unsexy to our partner—can be devastating to our ability to be sexually intimate. If you're struggling with a negative body image, talking to a therapist may help.
Enhancing intimacy as we get older
When it comes to touch and intimacy in the elderly, those everyday moments matter. Here are some tips for adding more “sparks” to your relationship and nurturing the emotional and physical bond you have with your partner.
- Share more. Intimacy involves a process of constant discovery between two people. Don't be afraid to be vulnerable with your partner by disclosing your deepest thoughts, fears, and feelings. Keep the lines of communication open, always. This may be as simple as swapping updates at the end of each day.
- Shake up your routine. Interactions with our partner can become habitual and repetitive. So take a detour from the ordinary and do something unexpected. For example, try a new vacation destination or visit that trendy new bistro instead of your usual Friday-night haunt.
- Do something nice. When caught up in our busy lives, simple acts of kindness can fall by the wayside. Enhancing intimacy with your partner can be as easy as paying them a compliment, making their favorite culinary dish, or taking on a household chore that’s normally theirs.
- Take on a new project together. Working alongside your partner toward a common goal can help foster a deeper bond—and cherished memories. A project you tackle together could be anything from taking a gourmet cooking class to doing a small house remodel project.
- Schedule time to be alone. Between visits with your grandkids, doctor's appointments, and other life commitments, quality time with your partner may be nearly non-existent. Plan a monthly date or daily cup of coffee together and stick to it. This doesn’t have to be anything fancy—date night could be as basic as popping some popcorn and watching your favorite TV show at home.
- Show physical affection. Sexual intercourse can be enjoyable, sure, but you can build intimacy without it. Simple acts like dancing in the kitchen to a favorite tune, giving each other a back massage, and holding hands during a neighborhood stroll can help bring you closer together.
- Unplug and be present. In this digital age, couples can get consumed spending time scrolling on their phones or computers. Make it a point to set aside time each day to unplug the electronic devices and give each other your undivided attention.
While intimacy and sex are two distinctly different things, they are intertwined. Especially in women, emotional intimacy can lead to more positive sexual experiences and greater sexual satisfaction. And physical intimacy, whether it involves sex or not, can help you feel connected with your partner in other ways.
Want to know more? Learn about improving your sexual health after 50.
1. National Council on Aging, Aging Mastery Program (AMP), Sexual Health: An Overview.