A therapist working with older adults in New York searches for answers to questions about issues of sexual rights versus sexual safety and finds the answers are still hard to come by.
I had the opportunity to attend a program sponsored by the American Society on Aging on the topic of Healthy Sexuality and Aging. The seminar presented by the LGBT Aging Issues Network was led by Hilary Meyer, the director of the National Resource Center on LGBT Aging, Karol Markosky from the Council of Senior Centers and Services of New York City (CSCS), Robin Dessel, a well known advocate for elder rights, and Mark Brennan-Ing, a Senior Research Scientist at the AIDS Community Research Initiative of America (ACRIA)
The agenda included addressing truths and myths about sexuality and aging, sharing the recent research findings on the sexual health of older LGBT adults, discussing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases in the older adult population and debating the current thinking on the critical issue of consent to sexual activity for people with various stages of dementia.
The panel presented issues related to
aging from three different perspectives: from within a continuing care environment, from the point of view of a community-based organization and through the eyes of a cutting edge researcher on LGBT older adult sexuality.
The discussion began with a conversation about the current attitudes around sexuality in our society today, specifically Ageism and how it breeds an atmosphere of misinformation. Too many people prefer to believe that older adults are asexual. “No one wants to imagine their mothers and fathers having sex,” was one comment. This led to a discussion of what “sex” is. For many in the general population, it is defined solely as the act of vaginal intercourse performed in the name of procreation. However, a more progressive definition that takes into account a broader spectrum of possibilities, defines “sex” as encompassing any number of intimate behaviors. Studies show that 88 percent of older LGBT partners (65+) were sexually active in the last year. This statistic highlights the fact that the need for intimacy doesn’t fade with age. One panelist summed up the discussion by saying that “There is no end to sexuality. Granted your sex life in your twenties is going to be different than when you are seventy. But just because you’re older doesn’t mean you aren’t interested in touching and other forms of intimacy.”
The discussion concluded with conversations about two topics that are on the minds of anyone working in the area of aging and sexuality: educating older adults about safe sex practices and addressing the issue of sexual rights versus sexual safety when it comes to older adults with various stages of dementia. Regarding the former, it was generally agreed that introducing making better information about the dangers of STIs more available to the older adult population should be a priority for therapists, educators, caretakers and administrators. Concerning the issue of protecting older adults’ rights in general and concerns about mutual consent in particular, definitive conclusions were a little more difficult to come by. The participants were reminded that until recently exhibiting sexual desire in advancing years was seen as a symptom of dementia. Everyone concurred that individual rights should not be affected by age. However, as older adults transition into more and more clinical environments, what is clinical and what is personal becomes blurred. The consensus was that it should be the goal of clinicians to develop more effective assessment tools to determine when and if certain individual levels of mental capacity are diminished. At the same time, it is critical to make caregivers more aware of how Ageist attitudes often proliferate in the guise of patient safety and unfairly intrude on older adults’ rights to privacy and intimacy.