Researching the Sex lives of over 50s revealed a surprise

MidLyfe Editor: Here is an excellent article published by the University of Sheffield about the sex lives of those of us in later life. The researcher Dr Sharron Hinchcliff makes one very important point – and it has as much to do with GP’s as it has to do with the sexploits of the over 50s. To help raise awareness of this research, Dr Hinchcliff teamed up with an artist with unmistakable designs and humour to bring to life the reality of this sometimes ‘sensitive’ subject via two aptly named characters Frank and Joy.

When you reach a certain age, there’s a perception of how your life goes. Aged 18? You’ll be out drinking every night. And if you’re older than 50, your evenings consist of Emmerdale, bedtime reading from 8pm and lights out soon after. At least that’s what we might perceive to be true, following preconceived notions generated in decades past. But according to statistics from Terrence Higgins Trust, the heat generated under the covers by millions of over 50s comes from more than just a hot water bottle.

Dr Sharron Hinchliff of the University of Sheffield has been delving into the intimate lives of older adults for almost two decades. And through her research, it’s clear that while millennials are doing the Netflix, it’s older adults who are doing the chill.

It might sound like great news for older adults, but Sharron’s research has shown it’s not all smiles. With older age comes health problems, and there’s one rather important group that are showing a queasiness to their bedroom antics. The biggest group in need of education about sex lives aren’t the over 50s; it’s health practitioners. “I interviewed a GP who said he would not ask the question of a sexual issue in an older patient but they would in a younger patient.” Sharron explains. “They knew the sexual issue could be caused by a medication that they had given to them. So for example, someone in their 30s or 40s, if they’re prescribed an antidepressant that can cause orgasm problems, they’d mention it to that patient but when you get to your 60s, 70s, they said they probably wouldn’t. And that’s really unfair.

One of the major reasons that the conversations don’t happen is the stigma. It’s one of the difficulties that can block older adults from enjoying a healthy sex life, as an overwhelming proportion are being failed by a healthcare system simply not trained to provide the right support. “I’ve talked to many older adults who have not received help, and have just thought ‘that’s it’ and given up. There’s an assumption that those in their 70s and 80s are not going to be sexually active, or that if they are they won’t want to talk about it because it’s private.  Indeed, many older adults grew-up during a time when sex was not to be discussed. Some older women I’ve spoken to didn’t know about menstrual cycles and when they had their first period, they were frightened and thought they were dying. Many older adults don’t want to give up their sexual lives but they don’t know there are things that can help.

This is where Sharron’s research comes in. It’s the first in the UK to identify sex and intimacy as two key components of quality of life in older adults. It’s been used by the World Health Organisation — she’s just returned from the Women Deliver conference in Vancouver, delivering their first-ever talk on sexual health and older women. But how does that research translate into educating the wider world?

Helping to bring Sharron’s work to life is Pete McKee, an artist from Sheffield. His unmistakable designs are ingrained into the city’s culture, making him the first port of call as Sharron’s Age of Love plans began to take shape.“I didn’t know what I wanted the project to look like, but inspired by The Snog (painted on the side of Fagan’s pub), I approached Pete” Sharron explains. “He was interested, so we met a few times and I explained my research findings and the discrimination that older adults face in this area. And he decided to take it up. I was delighted. Pete is the perfect creative partner for my research – his approach to everyday life, the humour, the imagery, and the characters.

Pete’s work is centred around reality, and this project saw him focus on two of his earlier characters, Frank and Joy. A Yorkshire couple later on in life, they swiftly became the face (and bodies) of Sharron’s work. Already adorning walls across Pete’s home city, the decision to use the pair transformed a serious subject into one that was more approachable to the wider world.



Sharron and Pete’s collaboration was made public in 2018 as part of the Festival of the Mind, a series of Sheffield talks and workshops between University of Sheffield academics and the city’s creative and digital industries. Hundreds of visitors from Sheffield and beyond took in the eye-catching designs and the messages behind them. And a large proportion of those visitors had plenty in common with Frank and Joy. “People were laughing, gasping, and smiling during the exhibition. They wanted to buy art for their walls based on this. We knew that the exhibition had done what we wanted it to – to start a conversation about a topic that tends to be taboo and unspoken. In that way it’s helped to raise awareness of the issue” said Sharron.

The sex lives of over 50s will no doubt continue to surprise us, the more this generation opens up and this project goes some way in achieving that.

This is an excerpt from the original article published by the University of Sheffield – READ the whole article HERE

Visit the Age of Love website HERE