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Sexuality, older people and the power of service providers

There is a significant gap between service providers’ responsibility to promote sexuality wellbeing and safety and their right to information on how to achieve this, but things are about to change, writes Dr Catherine Barrett.

Catherine Barrett

Dr Catherine Barrett

Over the past decades, there have been enormous shifts in recognition of older people’s sexuality. Previously, the myth of asexual old age meant that often when sexuality was considered, the focus was limited to the problem of older people expressing their sexuality when it was felt they should not.

There is now much greater awareness of the importance of addressing older people’s sexual wellbeing and safety. An indication of this is the number of peak bodies, such as Alzheimer’s Australia, that have developed information on sexuality for older people.

But perhaps the strongest indicator yet is the growing interest amongst service providers in education and resources to address older people’s sexual wellbeing and safety.

We need to harness the growing interest in older people’s sexuality wellbeing and safety by providing education and resources that build the capacity and confidence of service providers. This is particularly important because most service providers have never had education on how to address older people’s sexuality and many are working without the guidance of an organisational policy.

Consequently, there is a significant gap between service provider’s responsibility to promote sexuality wellbeing and safety – and their right to information on how to achieve this. But that is about to change.

Toolkits for aged care

At the Melbourne Better Practice Conference in June, Australia’s first national network and resource on older people’s sexuality will be launched to address this gap. The Older People and Sexuality (OPAL) Institute will include a website to disseminate practical resources to older people and service providers to promote older people’s sexual wellbeing and safety.

At the launch of the OPAL Institute, two new resources will be released. The first is a Sexual Boundaries Toolkit, which was developed in response to regular feedback that sexual boundaries are crossed by clients and families, and sometimes workers, in home care services. The kit includes an organisational policy for services to localise, information for clients and their families and a template for staff education. It has been piloted in a series of workshops and feedback indicates it has resulted in an increase in workers reporting when a sexual boundary is crossed.

The second toolkit was developed for residential aged care services in response to service provider concerns about sexual consent, residents forming new relationships, resident-family conflict and unlawful and unwanted sexual contact. The kit includes a sample policy, a charter of residents’ sexual rights and responsibilities, a charter of staff rights and responsibilities and resources for staff education.

These toolkits and the workshops follow a particular philosophy. They recognise the power of aged and community care service providers to promote older people’s rights to sexual wellbeing and safety. They also recognise that service providers have the right to the practical skills and tools to ensure this can be achieved.

A collaborative approach

The OPAL Institute draws on feedback from older people and service providers to shape resources and education. But this change cannot simply come from service providers. We need the standards governing services to reflect the importance of older people’s sexual wellbeing and safety and guide the quality of services and the responsibilities of service providers.

The OPAL Institute will provide a space for service providers and older people to learn from each other and will build momentum for recognition of sexual wellbeing and safety. Examples of good practice need to be recognised.

In an example of this, COTA Victoria and the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society at La Trobe University are currently working on a project funded by the Victorian Women’s Trust to document examples of good practice in preventing the sexual assault of older women.

The online survey and interviews represent a new wave of thinking about older people’s sexual wellbeing and safety that sits alongside the focus on problems and issues by concentrating on how we can learn from what works.

Dr Catherine Barrett has over 30 years’ experience working with older people and 15 years working to facilitate recognition of older people’s sexuality. In March, she launched The Tea Cosy Project and in June, will launch The OPAL Institute.

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