Aged care and the sexual revolution

Sex and aged care. It’s not a subject often spoken about, but older Australians, along with industry professionals, believe the need for sexual intimacy in aged care is a basic human right that’s being neglected.

In an article published by the ABC yesterday, journalist Samantha Selinger-Morris reported that older Australians are speaking out about the need for the right to sexual contact in aged care facilities. A number of industry professionals agree – for too long now, older people in aged facilities have been denied the right to have their sexual needs addressed.

Ms Selinger-Morris writes of a sex worker in Sydney who regularly ‘meets’ a 91-year-old man with dementia in his nursing home. The worker, known by the alias ‘Emma’, said that when she first met with the elderly man, ‘George’, she had to do so ‘cloak and dagger’ style.

“You had to sneak in, pretend to be God knows what,” says Emma.

Luckily, George’s carers understand his needs.

Nowadays, says Emma: “His primary carer welcomes me when I come in, waits outside, comes back in when I help lift him onto the bed, helps me when I finish with him, and hands me the white envelope with payment. It’s a pretty profound thing.” 

George’s case is one for the books. A 2016 study about the recognition of sexuality and sexual health in aged care facilities found that around 40 per cent of these facilities had little or no training about the sexual rights of older people.

The study’s leader, Dr Michael Bauer, is a committed advocate for the sexual rights of older Australians. He writes: “Sexuality remains important for many older people; however, embarrassment, dissatisfaction with treatment, negative attitudes and seeming disinterest by health professionals can all inhibit discussions. Professionals and health-care services need to adopt strategies and demonstrate characteristics which create environments that are more supportive of sexuality. Issues related to sexuality and sexual health should be able to be discussed without anxiety or discomfort so that older people receive optimal care and treatment.”

One organisation that has heeded this call, Touching Base NSW, is a group of sex workers and people with disabilities who are champions of this cause. The organisation facilitates the links between older people, people with disability, and sex workers, to help them develop relationships, have sex and express their sexuality at all stages of life.

And earlier this year, Dr Catherine Barrett launched the OPAL Institute, which was established to promote the sexual rights of older people.

Currently, there is no legislation to protect the sexual and intimate rights of older Australians in aged care apart from the Charter of Residents’ Rights and Responsibilities which states that residents should have their “individual preferences taken into account and treated with respect”. According to Alison Rahn, who is writing a paper on aged care residents and intimacy, says that because of the lack of specific legislation: “… residents are subject to the whims, personal values and knee-jerk reactions of the staff members who care for them, many of whom are often young and without much training”.

Just because a person enters aged care doesn’t mean they should lose the entitlement to have a basic human right addressed. Sex is a basic human instinct, and that doesn’t necessarily go away with age. It’s clear there is a need for a re-assessment of the need for aged care residents to express themselves sexually, without prejudice, with a touch of humour and with the realisation that sex is a natural part of life.

It would seem that baby boomers who started the sexual revolution in the 60s and 70s are still fighting the good fight in their 60s, 70s and beyond.

What do you think about this issue? Is the right to sexual intimacy important to you? Should the Government step in and create legislation that specifically protects the sexual rights of aged care residents? Have you had any experience dealing with this, either for yourself or for a loved one in aged care? Why not share your story with our members?

Related articles:
Should we talk more about sex?
Sex still important to seniors
Sex secrets of long-term couples

Written by Leon Della Bosca

Leon Della Bosca has worked in publishing and media in one form or another for around 25 years. He's a voracious reader, word spinner and art, writing, design, painting, drawing, travel and photography enthusiast. You'll often find him roaming through galleries or exploring the streets of his beloved Melbourne and surrounding suburbs, sketchpad or notebook in hand, smiling.
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