(LifeWire) -- Like 20- or 30-something singles, older men and women are dating and embracing their sexuality. But many older singles -- some of whom have already been down the aisle -- aren't looking to exchange their single status for a band of gold.
Some older Americans are looking for companionship rather than marriage.
"We are not aiming for great changes in the second half of life, but looking for fulfillment in who we are now," says Sharon Romm, a Seattle-based psychiatrist and author of "Dating After 50: Negotiating the Minefields of Midlife Romance."
"Not everyone wants another marriage. Someone might want a companion for going to concerts on Saturday night and not much more. Others might absolutely want -- or not want -- sex as part of another relationship."
More than a third of Americans over 50 are divorced, widowed, separated or have never married, according to a tally of statistics released in 2006 by the U.S. Census Bureau.
"Many over 50 are no longer looking for that one person, that 'soul mate'," says Dr. Philip Belove, a marriage and family therapist based in Bellows Falls, Vermont, who specializes in midlife relationships issues. "If you have a life that you like and things you want to do and interests to pursue, maybe you don't want to sacrifice some of those priorities in order to be someone else's soul mate."
This sentiment doesn't just apply to confirmed bachelors, either. For many women, their careers and hobbies rank higher on their priority list than do romantic relationships, according to Belove.
As Margaret Murchie, a 52-year-old realtor in Honolulu, Hawaii, a self-proclaimed independent woman who dates but has never been married, puts it simply, "They have to make me happier than I am now on my own."
A 2003 AARP study of 3,501 singles aged 40 to 69 showed that about one-third of those surveyed were either in a relationship or dating one person exclusively. A comparable percentage had dated one or more people in the previous three years. But of those who were dating, just 8 percent listed "to find someone to marry" as their reason for doing so. Indeed, 49 percent said they were simply looking for someone "to talk to and do things with."
Of course, dating isn't always easy, particularly for those who may be dipping back into the dating pool after years on the sidelines. But there are many ways for older Americans to meet and get to know one another, many geared specifically to their cohort:
• Travel programs, such as Elderhostel offer learning adventures worldwide.
• Volunteer programs, like the Senior Corps, connect those with community service programs in need.
• Institutes of higher education, such as The Ohio State University's Program 60 or the University of North Florida's Learning for a Lifetime, offer tuition waivers or discounted classes for seniors.
Sexual evolution or revolution?
Just as older Americans aren't letting the years stop them from dating, they're not letting it end their sex lives, either.
Many of the 3,005 U.S. adults aged 57 to 85 surveyed for a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) reported having sex at least once within the past year:
Among the oldest group of sexually active adults, 54 percent were having sex at least twice a month, while 23 percent reported engaging in sex at least once a week.
The study published August 23 defines sex very loosely to include mutual activity that doesn't require intercourse.
"It is time that our society's traditional thinking that disconnects old age and sex be revisited," says Ruth S. Jacobowitz, author of "150 Most-Asked Questions About Midlife Sex, Love, and Intimacy." "We're all living longer, so our needs to relate sexually are lasting longer."
But older Americans who are sexually active face health issues, too.
• Although HIV/AIDS is a threat to Americans of all ages, about 19 percent of Americans infected with HIV/AIDS are 50 or older, according to the U.S. government's National Institute on Aging (NIA). The NIA doesn't break down transmission rates among this demographic -- for example, through drug use, heterosexual or homosexual contact -- but the institute does point out that older adults in general tend to know less than younger Americans about how HIV/AIDS is transmitted and the necessity of using condoms. They are also less likely to be tested for the disease.
• Aging can affect sexual performance. Both men and women may find that it takes longer to become aroused as they grow older, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This may be caused by health problems like heart disease, by medications being taken to treat health conditions, or simply by stress or concerns about a changing appearance as one ages.
• The NIH notes that women in the midst of menopause, which causes estrogen levels to decline, may experience pain during intercourse. Contrary to a commonly held assumption, however, a study by the New England Research Institute and the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 2000 found that lower estrogen levels did not lower a woman's libido.
• In men, aging can cause impotence. About 5 percent of men aged 40 report having this problem, and it increases to about 15 percent of men aged 70, according to the Massachusetts Male Aging Study. E-mail to a friend
LifeWire provides original and syndicated lifestyle content to Web publishers. Jocelyn Voo is a freelance journalist and relationships editor at the New York Post.
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