Maria and Charlie have been married for 60 years and remain very much in love. They are no longer able to drive on their own and require the help of their adult daughter to take care of the house when Charlie’s arthritis flares up. Maria and Charlie, near 85-years of age, still enjoy spending time with one another and have found that intimacy helps maintain their bond. While sex isn’t as big a part of their relationship as it was 40 years ago, the couple still wants to be intimate together despite their physical limitations―a topic that makes their adult daughter rather uncomfortable.
The Statistics on Sexuality & Seniors
As a society, we think of sex after a certain age as negative, or even “gross” to younger individuals. However, as medical advances and differences in lifestyle allow seniors to live longer than ever before, the number of sexually active seniors is increasing. According to a study of 1,300 individuals over the age of 60 by the National Council on Aging, 61% of the men and 37% of the women surveyed reported being sexually active.
While sex in senior marriages can be easier for family caregivers to accept, there are also situations in which single seniors, who have outlived a spouse or been divorced, may find themselves in relationships during the later stages of life. In the course of these relationships, it is not uncommon for sexual desires to surface―just as they would, for a younger couple. However, age, medical conditions and living arrangements can make these sexual encounters slightly more difficult to manage.
Tips for Caregivers
Bringing Up the Issue
Talking about sex and intimacy may be viewed as taboo for some seniors. Meanwhile, others may embrace their sexuality and be more open to discussing their situation with family caregivers. While discussing your elderly mother’s relationship with her 74-year-old boyfriend may be just as awkward of a situation as when she chatted with you about the birds and the bees when you were 16, communicating about the subject may help both caregiver and care recipient feel more at ease.
Consider bringing up the topic gently, perhaps by asking how the relationship is going and using terms such as “sleeping over” if words like “sex” create an environment that causes you or your care recipient to shy away from the conversation.
The health of seniors engaging in sex, either in or out of marriage, can be a major concern of caregivers. Heart conditions, or degenerative memory diseases such as dementia, can be problematic. Caregivers can encourage seniors to ask their physicians if they are healthy enough for sex, and if so, if there are any precautions they should take. One important item for seniors to discuss with their doctors is sexually transmitted diseases. Seniors are not immune to diseases such as AIDS, chlamydia, gonorrhea, etc. Caregivers may ask health care providers to bring the topic up and discuss prevention if the topic is too sensitive or embarrassing for the caregiver and care recipient to discuss together.
Facilitate Relationships with Care
One of the most difficult areas for caregivers, especially when dealing with relationships of single seniors, can be knowing when sexual relationships are or aren’t appropriate. As a caregiver, it is important to know that the relationship is consensual for both parties. Sometimes, this can be as simple as prompting your loved one with questions, or working with other members of your caregiving team to help supervise and watch for cues that the relationship is desired by both parties. Depending on the level of dementia, this can be hard to ascertain, and caregivers should be aware that consent may be momentary, but that doesn’t mean that it is not desired.
Caregivers can play a part in senior relationships by providing transportation, or even facilitating “sleepover dates” that allow seniors to be near each other in a safe environment. While privacy in these situations is important, depending on a senior’s condition, having a caregiver nearby―or access to a medical call device―can help ensure that assistance is nearby in case of a medical event.
Residential Care and Sexuality
Should a loved one move into residential care, sexual relationships are often frowned upon. A recent study published in the Journal of Medical Ethics (June 25, 2012) found that elderly residents are regularly and needlessly denied consensual sex because of concerns regarding safety, ageism and potential repercussions from family members. As a caregiver you may be called upon to help navigate with the facility, and possibly also the other residents family, ways that the care recipient can continue to enjoy this normal and healthy part of aging.
All people are sexual, and those who serve as the primary caregiver of an elderly loved one should be aware (personal comfort levels aside), that seniors―whether completely healthy or with frailties and afflictions―are still likely to experience sexual desires during the course of a relationship. If the senior you are caring for is not in a relationship, that does not mean that sexual feelings are not present. Self sexual stimulation is common, and older individuals, even one with a physical or cognitive disability, should be given privacy to allow for the expression of his/her sexuality.
While encountering someone you care for in a sexual situation may be embarrassing or uncomfortable for any/all parties involved―especially for adult children caring for a parent―it’s helpful to remember sexual drive as a very natural impulse within us all, from puberty on through the end of life. By helping seniors seek an open dialogue about their sexual health alongside their standard medical care needs, family caregivers can help their aging loved ones reap the positive benefits of a healthy sexual relationship.
Content contributed by Clear Care Online