There are many attributes that make us unique: our thoughts, feelings, taste in music, sense of humour, the way we smile, our favourite colour – even our deepest darkest secrets and intimate desires. These are things that define you, as your body ages and changes on the outside. But you remain the same – this is usually subjective self-perception, of course. Sure, technology may advance and the music may not be to your taste anymore, but ageing should not see you marginalised into a societal based prejudice.
Throughout history, ageing was admired and revered; those who were fortunate enough to reach their later years were seen as elders, wise, knowledgeable and respected. This is how the world once was and how it should have remained; sadly it did not. As we age our bodies begin to be judged as flawed, imperfect versions of what once was; rotting shells that need to be put aside where no one can see.
Our revered elders became invisible. We afford little thought to the person inside, still very much alive, still enjoying the wonders that life has to offer; instead we take them for granted and in some instances even treating them as if they were unable to think for themselves. Slowly our elders succumb to this ageist Western society where youth is the only currency worth investing in. In part subscribing to the social stigmas constantly reaffirmed by the media. Our once elders are now a societal burden, a reminder of what will happen to most of us, yet no longer celebrated but feared.
As we age, are we suddenly going to stop having thoughts and feelings? Unlikely. It is for this reason, for you, for me, for everyone who is ageing (which is all of us) that I chose to research sexuality, well-being, self-esteem and self-perception in elders. It is my hope to elucidate, as has been recognised by the World Health Organization (WHO), that sexuality is a lifelong need, and an important one that sustains both emotional and physical health.
I hope to enact change to eradicate the invisibility of our ageing population, so that once again we revere our elders for the important place they hold within our lives. With an ever ageing population, we must aim to embrace our elders as we once had, and look on them as assets to society rather than burdens. As you are reading this, elders around the world silently excel as babysitters, volunteers, tutors, and even as academics and researchers.
In this first of my (hopefully many) research projects, I hope to demonstrate that as our bodies age with the passage of time, we exist as we do now inside it. Increasing awareness in society regarding health and care for elders needs to be in our future; the current view of ailing human imperfection must end as it is unhelpful and ignorant. Our elders deserve access to more open dialogue with health providers, regarding sexual function and disease control; care facilities updated to include spousal rooms for ageing couples, and better access to mental health professionals to help with grieving and isolation from losing partners and friends. These are but a few examples to help facilitate a better future for our elders.
My preliminary research findings show that not only do our elders continue to express their sexuality, but they welcome and appreciate it. For some elders this can simply mean a kiss or a cuddle in front of the TV, for others it may be a more elaborate sexual act. Regardless, engaging sexuality regularly keeps a spring in their step and a spark in their lives. Although many seem to have carried the stigma from younger generations of ageing with them, the freedom to now express their sexuality into their older adulthood brings a multitude of physical and psychological benefits. Affording our elders a basic human right with privacy that’s free from judgement is not too much to ask. When you get older would you prefer to be supported, healthy, engaged and revered for your lifetime of knowledge? I know I would.
Melleah Strautins is an honours researcher at Edith Cowan University in Australia. Melleah sits on the editorial board of Psychreg Journal of Psychology.