Addressing sexual intimacy

Aged care providers are “ill-equipped” to deal with matters of sex and sexuality, says expert.

The aged care sector lacks guidelines to uphold residents’ rights around sexual intimacy due to ageism, an expert has told Australian Ageing Agenda.

“There is an ageist myth that older people aren’t sexual,” said Dr Catherine Barrett – founder of advocacy organisation Celebrate Ageing. “That has resulted in a lack of education or guidelines for service providers – particularly in residential aged care.”

Dr Barrett spoke to AAA ahead of a webinar hosted by the Older Persons Advocacy Network that will address matters of sexual intimacy in aged care facilities.

“A lot of service providers that I speak to find themselves managing situations that they have absolutely no idea how to manage,” said Dr Barrett. “We’re talking about older people who are expressing their sexuality in the ways that they have the right to do and, sometimes, in ways that are not appropriate, and staff are ill-equipped to respond to that.”

Dr Catherine Barrett

Dr Barrett – who will be a panellist on the one-hour webinar – is co-architect of the Charter of Sexual Rights and Responsibilities in Residential Aged Care. The charter offers providers guidelines to support prevention of sexual assault in aged care homes by clarifying when sexual activity is acceptable, and when it is not.

“That lays it down in black and white, drawing on global guidelines and saying what older people’s rights in relation to their sexuality and intimate relationships are and what the responsibilities in relation to other residents and in relation to staff are,” Dr Barrett told AAA.

The webinar follows up on the charter’s guidelines to build the capacity of aged care providers to respond to sexual intimacy issues in appropriate ways, said Dr Barrett.

“And to do that we have to educate and upskill and make sure that service providers feel confident and comfortable having conversations in their teams, with family members and particularly with older people about what’s happening and what any issues and concerns might be.”

Topics up for discussion during the webinar – called Your right to intimacy, which can be accessed between 1pm and 2pm AEST on 25 June – include the sexual rights of a person living with dementia, sexual assault, sexual consent, and sex work.

“It’s a broad range of topics to build the confidence and level of comfort amongst service providers,” said Dr Barrett. “We’ve got to understand that, not only are older people sexual and have sexual rights, but they are also sexually and gender diverse, so it really needs to be understood.”

And there is a lot to learn, she added. “The royal commission did say that [aged care] services aren’t really acceptable for older LGBTI people.” Dr Barrett told AAA that some aged care staff can find same-sex relationships confronting. “There is a lot of work to be done,” she said.

Also challenging for some aged care workers – residents who transition. “There are increasing numbers of older people who are transitioning to their authentic selves later in life and sometimes that means going into residential aged care and saying, ‘Oh my goodness there is this part of me that I’ve never recognised and it’s now or never,’” said Dr Barrett.

When dealing with a resident who transitions, not only may staff be wrestling with their own personal values and beliefs, they’re also managing the attitudes and responses of other residents and family members. “So it can be a fairly complex situation.”

Joining Dr Barrett on the webinar panel are Council of Elders member Gwenda Darling, University of Queensland PhD candidate and sex worker researcher Rachael Brenna, OPAN advocate Shawnee van Poeteren and OPAN CEO Craig Gear.

Dr Barrett told AAA the aim of the webinar is to kickstart a dialogue about, what for many in the sector, is a taboo subject. “It’s about opening up a conversation.”

To register for the webinar click here.

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Tags: Catharine Barratt, celebrate ageing, opan, sexual intimacy,

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