The level of education that residential aged care staff receive regarding sexuality and sexual health in older people varies considerably, new research shows.
The study, conducted by researchers from the Australian Centre of Evidence Based Aged Care (ACEBAC) at La Trobe University, surveyed 1,094 residential aged care facilities to determine if and when staff had received training on sexuality or sexual health, and what topics the training covered.
Almost half of the facilities surveyed in the study – some 45 per cent – had received training on sexuality or sexual health within the past two years. However, a similar percentage of respondents, or 40 per cent, indicated that they had never received any training in these areas at all.
The study builds on previous research from ACEBAC that showed sexuality and sexual needs were often overlooked in resident assessments, despite many older people continuing to engage in and have interest in sex.
Dr Michael Bauer said facilities that were not offering staff education on sexual health or sexuality were in a “state of denial” about older people’s sexual needs, and their role in facilitating space for residents’ sexual expression.
“It’s an area that continues to be neglected by some aged care facilities. It’s often a taboo topic and seen as not to be an issue for older people, just by virtue of them being old,” he told Australian Ageing Agenda.
Dr Bauer said for some older people continuing to be sexually active was important and contributed to their quality of life.
It was likely staff would encounter the issue of sex and there needed to be organisational responses in place, including education, training and policies. Without these, decisions about sexual behaviour tended to be based on staff’s own values, said Dr Bauer.
“Aged care facilities are where people live; it’s their home. They should be given opportunities to able to express their sexuality if it is important to them,” he said.
Education can be limited
Results from the study also indicated that even when sexual education was undertaken, the content was not always comprehensive.
For example, topics that addressed sexual health were often a “glaring omission” from educational programs, said Dr Bauer.
He noted education on sexuality or sexual health in residential aged care was often delivered after an “incident” occurred. “Sexuality still tends to not be seen as something that is normal. It is behaviour that often seen to be inappropriate or it’s pathologised,” he said.
Dr Bauer said a good educational program would offer strategies to make facilities more conducive to sexual expression, such as looking at ways to create privacy.
Further, the idea of sexuality didn’t just include sexual intercourse, but also grooming, dress and feeling attractive, said Dr Bauer.
The research, Education of residential aged care staff regarding sexuality and sexual health in later life, was published in the Journal of Clinical Nursing.
Other later-life sexuality research
Elsewhere, The Institute of Health and Ageing at the Australian Catholic University is conducting research into sexuality and intimacy in older adults. Men and women over 50 will be surveyed about what sexuality and intimacy means to them, and its place in their lives.
PhD student Ashley Macleod said the research would be used to develop a definition what healthy later-life sexuality is and what factors are associated with it as people age, and a measurement scale.
“Research indicates that sexuality is experienced differently by adults over 50 than it is during the reproductive years, but little has been done to look at this difference in more depth. Sexuality is clearly still important to many older adults, and continues to be an important factor in quality of life regardless of age,” said Ms Macleod.
To participate in the Older Adult Sexuality and Intimacy Study, visit the website.
Want to have your say on this story? Comment below. Send us your news and tip-offs to firstname.lastname@example.org
Subscribe to Australian Ageing Agenda magazine (includes Technology Review)