People don’t lose their sexuality as they get older and aged care policy and practice must recognise that denying the human need for contact and intimacy diminishes residents’ quality of life, according to a leading researcher behind a new assessment tool for facilities.
In the absence of policy, education and training , there is often a “kneejerk reaction” when issues around sexuality and relationships between residents arise in aged care, said Dr Michael Bauer, senior research fellow at the Australian Centre for Evidence Based Aged Care at La Trobe University.
“Facilities often don’t know how to handle it or how to proceed. Without a framework from which to respond, staff will tend to work off the basis of their own set of values or morals,” said Dr Bauer, who has extensively researched the issue of sexuality in aged care.
Sexuality did not refer solely to sexual intercourse but also included the human needs for grooming, feeling attractive, socialisation, intimacy, touch and romance.
Dr Bauer will be among the experts speaking at the inaugural Let’s Talk About Sex Conference, being organised by Alzheimer’s Australia Vic and COTA Victoria to raise awareness of the issue in the sector.
Sexuality and ageing remained a “challenging and confronting” area for many aged care facilities, but was nonetheless a quality-of-life issue, Dr Bauer told Australian Ageing Agenda.
In a national survey published late last year, Dr Bauer and colleagues found that just a quarter of aged care facilities addressed the issue of sexuality or sexual health in their resident assessments.
“It may not be appropriate to ask those questions when someone moves into a facility, but at some point down the track it might be appropriate to gather that sort of information to feed into the care delivery,” he said.
Similarly, in his survey of all Victorian residential aged care facilities in 2007 Dr Bauer found that just 3 per cent made reference to sexuality, intimacy, or relationships in their promotional materials.
New checklist for facilities
In response to the lack of resources and policy in this area, Dr Bauer and colleagues have developed a new sexuality assessment tool, which he described as a checklist of the factors that determined “how supportive facilities are towards older people being able to expressing their sexuality in residential aged care.”
It covered areas such as policy, training and education, the needs of older people, environment, safety and risk management. “The idea is that facilities can assess their performance in these areas to see where the gaps might be and what areas they may need to make some changes in,” he said.
The tool has been sent to all aged care facilities and is available to download online (click here to access).
The researchers plann to conduct a follow-up study to determine how facilities were using the tool and what impact it was having, however anecdotal reports suggested some had adopted it and were making procedural and practice changes to improve how they addressed the issue, Dr Bauer said.
“Often one of the difficulties is around knowing where to start, and having the conversation, so it’s a useful discussion starter,” he said.
The Let’s Talk About Sex Conference takes place 8-9 September in Melbourne.