Jun 20, 2024

Birds and the Bees: Talking About Sex and Intimacy in Aged Care

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We all remember having the talk with our parents growing up. Perhaps it involved some birds and bees, or a really awkward question like ‘Have you noticed your body changing lately’. Chances are you’ve also had to have that same conversation with your kids.

But have you spoken to your parents about sex and intimacy recently? It’s a topic most of us ignore in everyday conversations, especially in residential aged care. And yet older people have every right to be intimate, to find comfort. So if you work in aged care, have ageing parents, or are an older person, Older Persons Advocacy Network (OPAN) has the perfect webinar for you. 

Your Right to Intimacy will tackle some awkward and challenging conversations on sex and intimacy within aged care from all perspectives. Residents and older people interested in learning more about their rights and responsibilities or staff who want to learn more about initiating important conversations are invited to tune in. 

Catherine Barrett, Founder and Director of Celebrate Ageing, said conversations over sex and intimacy help break down society’s aversion to the topic, highlighting the negative impact ageism has on older people who are often just looking for comfort. 

“People talk about being sex-positive in the border community, so let’s have an approach to older people’s sexuality that isn’t ageist, that says older people have the right to intimacy,” she said.

“Intimacy, sex and sexual expression are incredibly important when people are experiencing a lot of loss. There’s comfort you can find in a partner from a hug or someone holding a hand.”

Ms Barrett will be one of four panellists featured in the webinar on Tuesday, June 25. She is joined by Gwenda Darling, Member, National Older Persons Reference Group, OPAN; Shawnee van Poeteren, Senior Project Officer – Advocacy Practice, OPAN; and Rachael Brennan, PhD Student, The University of Queensland. 

OPAN’s CEO, Craig Gear, hosts the event. He said it’s always essential to support an older person’s right to intimacy, but there can be challenges when cognitive decline or other factors may impact resident safety. 

“It’s a complex subject, which is why OPAN is encouraging conversation through our webinar and through our pioneering ReadyToListen project,” he explained. 

“One thing we know for sure, however, is that warmth, companionship and physical affection are vital to a person’s health and wellbeing – whether they are 18 or 80 and whether they live independently at home or in residential aged care.

“Respect for an older people’s sexuality and gender identity is also a crucial component of quality, person-centred aged care. I am aware of a number of cases in which older people have felt the need to go back in the closet after moving to residential care, triggering earlier trauma.”

Ms Barrett shared her excitement about working with OPAN on the webinar, highlighting just how critical it is for them to be championing the rights of older people. 

She has previously collaborated with OPAN to produce the ReadyToListen project, which includes a Charter of Sexual Rights and Responsibilities in Residential Aged Care. She said the Charter sets the standard so anyone can see what older people deserve to enjoy in aged care and where the boundaries are – much like society itself. 

“Why do we need these rights and responsibilities articulated? Because we have thought about older people as asexual and that’s not accurate. It’s not recognising older people as fully human and it’s ageist,” Ms Barrett said.

“Some people find the love of their life in the last years of their lives. That ought to be celebrated or at least respected. Then there is the right to privacy, the right to be free from unwanted sexual contact or sexual assault.

“There is a responsibility to check that the person you’re having a sexual relationship with is consenting and with those sexual activities, you’re not infringing on the rights of others. It’s the same rights a person has in the broader community but there’s an acknowledgement that in residential aged care, communal living and assisted living, privacy is more difficult.”

So what are the best ways to overcome obstacles like limited access to privacy? Without giving too much away before the webinar, Ms Barrett said aged care staff need education to be confident when talking to residents. This will result in having the skills to negotiate complex and awkward situations without conflict. 

Meanwhile, shared understanding and communication between colleagues are just as essential. Staff should be on the same page when talking to residents and family members so there is no mixed messaging. 

Information is available through OPAN’s website to help professionals, while registrations are still open for Your Right to Intimacy

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