As we have seen in an earlier chapter, both males and females can remain sexually active into very old age, indeed, as long as they are alive. Of course, serious illnesses or injuries can impair sexual functioning or even kill all interest in sex, but this is true for any age. The fact that in older people the sexual responses are somewhat less vigorous does not mean that they cannot be enjoyed. Under normal conditions, a person's sex life ends only with death. (For details see "The Male Sexual Response" and "The Female Sexual Response.")
However, in the Western world older and even middle-aged persons are often discouraged from sexual activity. They are reprimanded or ridiculed for their sexual interests according to a general assumption that sex in old age is abnormal, indecent, and disgusting. Thus, widows and widowers are scolded by their own adult children for wanting to remarry, residents of nursing homes are sexually segregated and denied any privacy by the staff, aged patients are told by their doctors or nurses to expect and accept a decline of sexual satisfaction, and older homosexuals are refused admission to "gay" bars or bath houses. The common prejudice is particularly strong against sexual relationships between partners of widely different age. A woman who has a much younger husband or lover is frequently viewed with open contempt, and a man with a much younger wife or girl friend is called "dirty". These younger people themselves may be denounced as "neurotic" or suffering from "gerontophilia". Nevertheless, apart from this public harassment, such relationships may be quite satisfying for both partners.
Since all human beings are destined either to die prematurely or to grow old, and since they all need love and affection as long as they are alive, sexual discrimination against the aging is inhumane and barbaric. No one who practices such discrimination or "ageism" can call himself truly civilized. Fortunately, not all societies are prejudiced in this fashion, and even in our own society there are now signs of some change for the better. Young men and women with non-Western backgrounds are often less obsessed with youth and vigor and therefore appreciate the experience and emotional stability of an older sexual partner. They may also be more aware of the fact that age does not have to affect the capacity to provide sexual satisfaction. Since the United States is a country of immigrants and contains a great variety of ethnic groups and subcultures, such open-minded, reasonable, and realistic sexual attitudes can still be found in different parts of the country. By the same token, there are many sociocultural "pockets" in America where an active sex life among the elderly is taken for granted. Furthermore, recent sex research has rediscovered and reconfirmed the sexual interests of the aging, and today there is a growing number of professionals who try to educate the public on this issue. Their efforts are directed primarily toward doctors, nurses, social workers and others who are concerned with the elderly, but they also address a wider audience. There is an obvious need for a general reorientation. Sexual activity can greatly contribute to the maintenance of good health in old age and therefore needs to be encouraged. Nursing homes, rooming houses, "retirement villages", and "senior citizen hotels" must take the sexual needs of their residents into account and allow them to be satisfied. In fact, very often hormone replacement and various physical therapies can be employed to keep sexual interests alive. At the same time, of course, great tact and discretion are necessary in approaching each individual. While it is unfair to ignore an older person's sexual needs, it would also be wrong to exert any pressure to perform or to set up a new sexual achievement standard for the aging. After all, like everyone else, the aging deserve to keep their sexual options and to live according to their own best judgment and ability.