Taboo Lifts on Sex in Nursing Homes

Sex isn't just for newlyweds. Our parents and grandparents are having it too. (Image credit: dreamstime.)

Nursing-home residents have sexual needs too. And now researchers are finding ways to educate staff on the taboo topic and provide accommodations for the elderly to shack up under some privacy.

"Most staff have the same mindset many of us do, which is 'I don't want to think about my parents having sex, let alone my grandparents,'" Gayle Doll, who directs Kansas State University's Center on Aging, told LiveScience.

The researchers suggest educating staff about sexuality and making sex in nursing homes less hush-hush. In the long run, they hope federal guidelines will help all nursing homes deal with sexuality in a positive way, especially as baby boomers age and bring their 1950s and 1960s attitudes about sex with them to the facilities.

The research, whose details were announced today, was presented in October at the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging conference.

"By law, you can't always lock a room, but you can offer residents some privacy," Doll said. The semi-private rooms that are typical in nursing homes pose a problem for residents who want to engage in sexual activity, either alone or with a partner, Doll added.

In fact, past research has shown that men and women continue to participate in sexual intercourse and "solo activities" well into their 70s and 80s.

Let's talk about sex

The researchers' suggestions come from studies about sexuality in three Kansas nursing homes. In the study, Majka Jankowiak and Laci Cornelison, research assistants at the Center on Aging, surveyed the staff before and after a workshop on sexuality that they had presented. Rather than telling nursing-home staff what to do, the researchers used the workshop to get staff talking about sex and asking questions.

The surveys, as well as anecdotal feedback from the participants, showed a marked change in attitudes.

"They really felt this was a topic that they needed to be educated on," Jankowiak said. "Part of it is that American society is not supportive of older people and sex. It's been a taboo, and it's an even bigger taboo in nursing homes."

Jankowiak added, "After the presentation, the participants felt more confident talking about it and dealing with sexual expression of residents."

Such shifting attitudes ended up having a positive effect on a married couple who had moved into a nursing home room with two hospital beds. One spouse had to have a leg elevated, but it was on the same side as the partner's bed. The positioning made it tricky for them to hold hands. Some staff members didn't see the importance of allowing the couple intimacy and said the problem couldn't be fixed.

"But someone who had been to our presentation encouraged everyone to move the furniture," Cornelison said.

Safety first

Sex in nursing homes brings up some safety issues. For instance, HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases can be concerns for a generation that may not have the same awareness that younger people do today, the researchers say.

Also, adult children may have concerns about their parents' safety or how a new relationship will affect the family or their inheritance. The researchers are developing materials to help family members deal with these questions.

"What they fear is exploitation or that the role the parent played will go away," Doll said.

In addition, Alzheimer's and dementia raise questions about the ability to consent, and these conditions also may spur sexual behavior that's inappropriate.

"Even though we advocate for residents' rights, there are things that are inappropriate," Doll said. "But staff must be able handle this without residents feeling embarrassed. Inappropriate behavior can just come from people needing relationships, not necessarily sexual ones."

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