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Sexual Health in Retirement Communities

By Kimberly FowlerOctober 25, 2017
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Personal health is a common topic among seniors, their family members and health care providers. Openly discussing ailments and planning care around specific health needs are part of supporting an elderly loved one. However, one area of senior health is often neglected – sexual health.

Sexual health is an incredibly important aspect of life and our relationships, and this is no different for people in their senior years, yet it’s an aspect we rarely discuss.

Are Older Adults Still Having Sex?

A study of “Sexuality and Health Among Older Adults in the United States,” published by the New England Journal of Medicine interviewed more than 3,000 adult Americans and determined that “the majority of older adults are engaged in spousal or other intimate relationships and regard sexuality as an important part of life.”

Society has developed a preconceived notion that older people are no longer capable of – or interested in – having sex, however the statistics do not support this belief at all. In fact, the numbers are staggering:

  • 73% of respondents who were 57-64 years of age identified as sexually active
  • 53% of respondents who were 65-74 years of age
  • 26% of respondents who were 75-85 years of age

Sexual Health in Retirement Communities

Retirement communities are engaging and supportive environments that offer seniors the opportunity to enjoy activities and hobbies with people in their same stage of life. For some, including divorcees and widowers, these communities also offer a chance to experience love again.

One study which reviewed community relationships between seniors, concluded that intimacy and sexuality are “manifested in various ways,” including hand holding, intimate touch, intercourse and other less physically intense expressions.

A persons’ intimacy and sexuality does not expire after they reach a certain age, however the ways in which they choose to express themselves sexually may change over time.

Society’s Misconceptions About Older Adults and Sexual Health

It may come as a surprise to some that the majority of adults aged 55 and older are still interested in – and actively participating in – sexual activities. Children of seniors may find it hard to believe that their parents are still sexually active, especially if they are experiencing cognitive decline or health ailments. As well, health care providers in retirement communities may struggle to support their residents’ sexual health.

A study entitled “Sexuality and Intimacy in Assisted Living: Residents’ Perspectives and Experiences,” published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, found that historically, “assisted living providers pay scant attention to clients’ sexual needs.”

But times are changing and many senior living communities are focusing on creating a supportive environment. How? They’re educating staff about issues surrounding aging and sexuality, as well as providing advocacy training. Studies have found this training elicits “positive, supportive attitudes that more effectively address the sexual health needs of residents to whom they provide care.”

When Physical Health Becomes a Barrier to Sex

Declining physical health of seniors, including disability, illness, medication or surgery can also be a significant barrier to sexual health.

A study of “Sexuality and Health Among Older Adults in the United States” suggests that among the respondents who were sexually active, about half of them reported at least one bothersome sexual problem. These problems can be a result of common conditions, including:

  • Arthritis
  • Chronic pain
  • Dementia
  • Depression
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Incontinence
  • Stroke

Fortunately, many of these issues and their symptoms can be treated to improve the enjoyment of sex. For example, doctors or pharmacists can prescribe lubricants, moisturizers or vaginal estrogen to help with dryness. Medication, such as Cialis and Viagra can also be prescribed to help manage or even reverse erectile dysfunction in men. These two issues are the most commonly reported sexual health issues faced by seniors, and they can be addressed quite simply.

The Increase in STIs in Retirement Communities

Although safe sex campaigns have been on the forefront for the past three decades, most are geared towards young people and the sexual health of seniors is often overlooked. Awareness and protection for seniors is increasingly important as sexually transmitted infections amongst this demographic are on the rise.

A study performed by Berkeley University of California Wellness uncovered “significant increases in STIs” among adults 65 and over, between 2010 and 2014:

  • Chlamydia infections increased by 52%
  • Syphilis infections rose by 65%
  • Gonorrhea cases increased by more than 90%

The study suggests that the increase in STI’s can be linked to Americans living longer and in better health than previous generations. Adults are sexually active well into their seventh decade and beyond, and with the higher rates of divorce and the death of a spouse, seniors are dating again for perhaps the first time since their youth.

A report by the Huffington Post suggests that many of today’s baby boomers were already married when sex education gained popularity in the 1980s and therefore missed the “safe sex” talks and never learned “safe sex etiquette.” Condoms were not widely used when seniors were first sexually active, and as a group they continue to use condoms less than any other demographic. STI’s are further spread due to the embarrassment seniors face discussing sexual issues with their family physician.

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Supporting Safe Sexual Health

In addition to sexual education for healthcare providers, children, family and friends of seniors must encourage safe sexual practices for their loved one.

A report by Global News suggests that having a conversation, no matter how awkward, is critically important to protect seniors and reduce rates of sexually transmitted infections. The article reports that health professionals may not think to test seniors for STIs and retirement homes may not be educating their residents. It is up to family members to navigate these conversations, especially if your parent is new to dating.

Sex advocate and author Joan Price emphasizes the importance of condom use and empowering seniors to have the conversation about condoms with a new potential partner: “I suggest [to my class] to say [to a new partner]: ‘I always use a condom with a partner, do you have a favorite or would you like to use mine?’ We’re not giving them a choice of not using it.”

Have you had “the talk” with your senior parent about safe sex and sexual health? We’d like to hear your stories in the comments below.

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Kimberly Fowler