Jun 12, 2018

Sex, intimacy and dementia – the right to express yourself

It’s not something we hear a lot about. Families often want to keep it quiet. Talking about sex can be difficult at the best of times. And the topic seems even more taboo when it relates to the intimate lives of people who are living with dementia.

Yet, as many who work in aged care will know, it’s quite common for residents living in aged care who also have a diagnosis of dementia to develop an intimate relationship with a fellow resident.

Rhonda Nay, Emeritus Professor La Trobe University, has no reservations discussing the topic. She told HelloCare that sexuality is central to who we are as people, and for people living with dementia, it’s no different – sex is still a part of who they are.

“Regardless of how old we are or our cognitive capacity, intimacy and sexuality remain central to who we are and how we feel about ourselves,” said Professor Nay.

“Dementia does not remove the need for personhood,” she said.

“Once a person with dementia reaches a point of not recognising their spouse, if they can find wellbeing with another I would support this,” she said.

Allowing people – all people, even those with dementia – to express their sexuality is considered a basic human right. “Having dementia does not remove human rights,” said Professor Nay.

The need for human touch

People living with dementia may lose their memory and experience other symptoms, but they still have the human desire to be appreciated and the capacity to enjoy the sense of touch.

“A person with dementia may not recognise their spouse anymore but they still need to feel valued and loved,” said Professor Nay.

“They still need the feel of human touch,” and may develop strong “connections” with other people with dementia.

How should staff respond?

In most circumstances, aged care workers should not prevent intimate relationships from developing, says Professor Nay.

“They are adults and we / staff do not have the right to allow or disallow adult behaviour unless is hurts another. Provided both participants demonstrate they are happy with the situation then others should have no say in the relationship,” she said.

How should families respond?

Families are often deeply upset to discover that a loved family member, possibly one who is already married, has developed a relationship with someone new while in care.

“This can be very hard for families,” said Professor Nay, but she said staff have a responsibility to help the family cope.

“The role of staff is first to support the wellbeing of the person with dementia, and then the wellbeing of family,” she said.

Staff can help the family “accept that the person with dementia is finding solace in another.”

Families “need to put the PWD and their love for them ahead of their own needs and jealousy”, she said.

“Some families are great and simply ask that their spouse is alone with them when they visit and what happens outside of the visit they do not wish to know.”

The benefits of intimate relationships

Sex is known to have positive health benefits, and to generally improve wellbeing.

“Sex is known to be good for relieving pain, depression and generally improving wellbeing,” said Professor Nay.

“Dementia is a devastating condition so anything that can improve wellbeing is worthy of support.”

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