Three years ago, I worked as a field interviewer for a pretest of a research study with the University of Chicago on a groundbreaking study called the National Social-Life Health and Aging Project. The Summer before last was the main part of the study, and I was honored to be a part of that, too.
The results are starting to be released. Apparently the data that had to do with sexual behavior and attitudes has been released in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Here is an article that talks about it.
Now, the whole study wasn't on sexuality amongst the elderly, though that data was high priority because really so little is known and so much is assumed that sex life just dwindles into nothingness at some point in life and ceases to be important. Only "The Golden Girls" has really suggested any different. Sexuality questions probably encompassed about 1/4 of the study as a whole. But it was important. At training, Dr. Lindau talked about how when she was a medical student, her professors stated that all health questions, including sexual questions should be asked of all patients as part of the typical assessment, but she noticed that when they were actually observing patient visits, they avoided the questions about sexual history or activity when the patient was elderly. When Dr. Lindau started asking her elderly patients, she found they were pretty relieved to be asked and to have those concerns addressed.
Although it was my first time as a field interviewer, I worked with many other field interviewers who had done this for a long time -- some of them 30 or more years. Even the most experienced had never worked on anything like this. They were amazed at how long, intense, thorough, and involved the questionaire was, and it also involved taking biomarkers. We carted around a whole suitcase of equipment. Most didn't think respondents would go for it, but as the article stated, there was a high rate of participation. Nothing like it has ever been done, and it was completely fascinating.
As I said, sexuality was only one aspect of the study. Mental, physical, emotional, social, and medical categories were assessed. The data on those will probably be released in the near future as well. And, being a longitudinal study, there will be more coming up. It wasn't just another sex study, only this time involving "old folks."
I was a little disappointed that this journalist decided to bring in Dr. Ruth and the Kinsey Institute. The study was not affiliated in either way with either, and either one tends to not be very respected amongst the general public. The chief purpose was to let doctors, family, clergy, and other caregivers have insight into the various aspects of health in the elderly, from their perspective. I was impressed with the thought and detail that went into it. It was meticulously designed and carried out, and years of effort went into making it so. It had to be well done, considering the sheer magnitude of the project.
It was bizarre reading an article about it though and recalling my experiences and knowing that my work, as well as a multitude of others, is coming to fruition now two years later. I was just a small cog in the process (though the cog that came into contact with the actual people being studied). It just might change how the elderly, including you and me someday, are treated regarding concerns in so many different areas of life.