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By Debbie le Quesne

Care homes . . . and dare we mention sex?

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I’m not one for deliberately grabbing the headlines, or in a knee-jerk way, responding to them. But I just can’t resist this BBC story pointed out to me by a colleague.

Headline: “The taboo of sex in care homes for older people.”

Hooked yet?

A recent study by the University of Manchester found that 54 per cent of men and 31 per cent of women over the age of 70 were still sexually active. Good of ‘em, I say.

The Beeb reported that it was the first nationally representative survey to include people over 80 in its sample, indicating both how attitudes are finally changing and how the sexuality of older people has been historically overlooked.

I find it interesting, though not surprising, that the subject still has an air of taboo, the findings of a study by the Royal College of Nursing a few years ago revealing that sex and relationships are not viewed as a priority in care homes.

“Human contact and sexual need are basic functions of the human being,” Dawne Garrett, older people’s adviser at the Royal College of Nursing, is quoted in the BBC report.

I understand that the subject can be a difficult one and observations in the report that “staff are generally not comfortable with the topic, and not knowledgeable about it either, thus they are powerless to help,” are probably true.

So how do we as care providers facilitate relationships?

I’d like to hear some answers or see a training brief, because sooner or later this is going to be a Human Right Act issue.

Lois Weaver, a performance artist who explores the subject of sex and ageing through her work, is quoted by the BBC: “We have a stigma about age.

“We don’t really treat people like elders. We treat [them] like people [who are] finished with life.”

Her groundbreaking show, What Tammy Needs to Know About Getting Old and Having Sex, seeks to break down the taboo of sex and ageing.

Anyone for a ticket?

Weaver is in her 60s, had been told that losing interest in sex was an inevitable part of getting older, but said she was not ready to accept that. “I was getting different urges and desires,” she was quoted as saying.

Her work is indeed interesting and those wishing to be challenged can find video links aplenty in a Google search. Her attempts to canvas opinion from residents in care homes, however, were generally met with failure which clearly underpins what she has coined the British “maternalistic” approach.

I really do feel I’m opening a proverbial can of worms here, especially as I consider what could happen sexually to dementia patients. We have to assume that homes seeking to have a more liberal approach to relationships sanction only consenting adults with capacity. Even then I suspect safeguarding issues would emerge.

Weaver, a professor of contemporary performance at Queen Mary University of London, a performance artist in her own right, writer, and director, is a seasoned campaigner. It will be interesting to see how she develops this one in the light of the Manchester study.

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