Aged care providers must consider how their policies, practices and buildings can improve privacy for their residents, a third of whom have partners, new research finds.

Baby boomers want to be able to sleep in the same room and bed as their partner and to be provided with as much privacy in aged care as possible, a new study has found.

Alison Rahn
Alison Rahn

Researcher Alison Rahn said that most aged care facilities did not enable partners to share a bed or room but studies had shown this may have significant impacts on each partners’ sense of wellbeing.

“If providers want to satisfy future consumer expectation, they need to start offering the option of a shared room with a double bed to partnered residents,” said Ms Rahn, a PhD candidate in the University of New England’s School of Behavioural, Cognitive and Social Sciences.

As part of Ms Rahn’s research, which is about to be published in the Elder Law Review journal, 168 baby boomers participated in an online survey and 29 people who worked in the aged care sector were interviewed.

Consistent with previous research findings, many of the baby boomers perceived that couples are afforded very little privacy in residential aged care.

When asked to consider their own future needs should they need to move to residential aged care, the majority said they did not expect to ever stop being sexual and that it was important for them to maintain their intimate relationship.

They also said that, as a couple, they required as much privacy as possible to relate intimately or sexually with their partner.

Currently about 50,000 aged care residents are married or in a de facto relationship and partnered older people make up 35 per cent of new admissions into aged care facilities each year, Ms Rahn said.

But despite legal protections, many couples in aged care facilities experience institutional interference in their intimate relationships; a significant contributing factor is a lack of privacy, her research found.

“Couples may be separated or provided with separate rooms or single beds, often unable to push them together. Staff may enter uninvited, ignore do not disturb signs or gossip about residents.”

A frequent source of tension is the absence of a clear boundary between residents’ needs for private time and rostered staff duties within residents’ rooms, Ms Rahn said.

Her study concluded that in order to prepare for partnered baby boomers in residential aged care, aged care providers must consider “how their policies, practices, and built environments could be improved to maximise the privacy of partnered residents, who represent approximately a third of their clientele.”

‘Hugs not drugs’ for sexual dysfunction

Meanwhile, a separate study by Australian Catholic University has found that while many older Australians still consider sexual urges and intercourse to be important, the desire for more affectionate contact becomes more prominent over time.

ACU’s Institute for Health and Ageing surveyed heterosexual Australians aged 51 to 89 to explore how seniors expressed sexuality and how their sexual experiences had changed over time.

“The research shows that older Australians have an increasing desire for affectionate and intimate sexual behaviours, such as hugging, kissing and touching, with a trusted partner who respects them,” said chief researcher Ashley Macleod.

“This means that traditional remedies for sexual dysfunction – such as Viagra – may not be appropriate for all older people, some of whom may be better off being referred to a relationship counsellor for support. The research indicates that it really is hugs – not drugs – that many older Australians want and need.”

Related AAA coverage: New resource to inform staff and aged care residents’ families on sexuality

Want to have your say on this story? Comment below. Send us your news and tip-offs to 

Subscribe to Australian Ageing Agenda magazine 

Sign up to AAA newsletters

Join the Conversation


  1. Did Ms Rahn or the Australian Catholic University include non-heterosexual people in their studies and considerations? If so please provide the relevant information.
    If not please explain.
    This is the 21st century and now law and policy state that lesbian and gay males are legitimate client groups, which implies that research should include them, and policy and practice should include them. It is not merely about sexual activity, it is about whole life experiences and how organisations and researchers should recognise that these groups still face exclusion and/or unfair treatment.

  2. If a couple could be allocated two adjoining rooms with a door between so they could choose one as their shared bedroom and the rooms were big enough to accomodate lifting devices, aging in place should be able to cope with the two having different levels of need. Please note, not all couples are heterosexual.

  3. My understanding is that in dementia units in NZ doors of bedrooms are not allowed to be locked. My late husband and I could not get 20 minutes at a stretch of private time because residents and staff felt entirely free to come and go as they pleased in daylight hours. I was not able to stay overnight and could not manage on my own at home. It was a very sad time for us.

  4. Yesterday, I attended a “referrers launch” of the new Australian Unity’s aged care home in Glen Waverley Vic – Campbell Place – all rooms will have “double beds” even for singles! Campbell Place will open in March 2017. Australian Unity should be applauded for this innovation in aged care.

  5. Thanks for your comments. The survey was not limited to heterosexual couples. Approximately 10% of survey respondents identified as LGBTI – their views are included in the findings.

  6. The OASIS study (ACU) was, in this instance, only looking at heterosexual couples for several reasons. One key reason was that it is my intention to complete research in this area with a focus solely on LGBTI adults in mid and later life. Our intention with this study was not to exclude those voices, nor dispute their legitimacy. We did, however, make an informed decision that older adults identifying as LGBTI would have their own story to tell and we thought it would be more respectful and provide a better (and much needed) understanding of their unique experiences if this was investigated separately. For those reasons, as well as others, only those identifying as heterosexual were included in this version of the OASIS. I hope this reassures you.

  7. Does anyone remember that absolutely heart-rending (?documentary) movie in which one half of the lesbian couple was, literally, torn from her partner’s arms?
    I NEVER want to see that happen in real life.
    Lesbians and lesbian couples are TERRIFIED of going in to aged care. With good reason, as lesbophobic discrimination was shown to be endemic in residential & community care (Matrix Guild, 2008, 2009). Some of you may say that, with the current training of aged care facility personnel in GLBTI cultural competence, that situation will have changed. The only problem with that is that lesbian-specific images and case studies are almost wholly absent from even the REVISED Training Manuals developed by ACON & the Nat LGBTI Health Alliamce.
    Participatory action research carried out by the Aust Lesbian Health Coalition (2014) shows that 4 out of 35 lesbians would prefer to self-terminate rather than go into aged care.
    Lesbian couples being able to share rooms in aged care facilities MIGHT be a good first step in helping them to realise that they don’t have to ‘go back into the closet’ in aged care and to understand that their way-of-being is honoured.

  8. Aged care facilities certainly need to lift their game and there needs to be better staff education in order for staff to be more respectful. I work in aged care and believe my staff pass judgement and put their own values on everyone else. We have a long way to go!

  9. I would like to support the statement by K. Lavender re the research by Ms Rahn. Aged care facilities vary and even the most expensive can be problematic. If heterosexual couples are finding their needs not met I doubt if lesbian or gay couples find acceptance. I visit an aged friend and no one ever knocks on the door when I am there. It would not be a good place for lesbian couples to have any private conversations let alone intimate times. Generally speaking the staff working directly with residents are poorly trained and have minimal interpersonal skills.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.