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.

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  1. Middle-aged men and women, who are the parents of young adults often no nothing about the sexual activities of their children and have little or no control over those activities, yet, surprisingly, those same men and women feel, not merely empowered but actually obligated, to control and direct the sexual activities of their parents, especially those who are in “äged-care”. Many aged-care facilities do not provide accommodation suitable for even long-married couples. Where these middle-aged people are not merely the children of aged-care residents but actually operate aged care facilities the problem is further compounded. It appears that many aged care facilities are unaware of the adverse effect that Sensory Tactile Deprivation has on.the psychological and physical well-being of most mammals including human beings.
    Despite having written and spoken on this subject for several years I have still to get any response from the aged care industry.
    As an 86 (and a half) years old man, not yet institutionalised ,I have a personal as well as professional interest in this subject. Do You?

  2. Right on, Peter! (and write on)

    The Dept of Health & Ageing funded in 2013 a very interesting resource for residential aged care services – the SEXUALITY ASSESSMENT TOOL (SexAT). It’s available on the web.. check it out.

  3. I think this could create even more work for already staff of these Facilities. It is hard enough to monitor, at night mostly, the activities of some male residents. If I had a female resident in one of these facilities, I would be concerned about their peace of mind. Even in hospitals it presents a problem, particularly when there are Charge Nurses that do not give a rats arse about mixed sex rooms etc. Patients being placed together in a mixed room so that the nurse in charge doesn’t have to walk more than a couple of metres to check on what is going on. People need to be aware of these problems. Like it is OK for relatives to worry about the sexual needs of their relative, but it is also a problem for those in a Facility that don’t have an interest in sex OR invasion of privacy, personal privacy in general inter alia. Old age is sad. Lack of intimacy is sad. Lack of privacy and peace of mind is sad. I think we would be better off worrying about whether or not people are being treated kindly in these Facilities, well fed, kept clean and treated like human beings. Forget the sexual side of things. It is just rubbish

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