Health News

Assisted-living facilities limit sexual freedom among older adults, study says

Increasing age involves many lifestyle changes, often because of health, but the desire for intimacy and sex doesn’t disappear when with age — there’s just less, and it can be more of a challenge to engage in sexual relationships.

Despite this sexual reality, researchers at Georgia State University found assisted-living facilities may impede older adults seeking company because caregivers or family members have concerns, or simply because it is overlooked while trying to ensure safety for residents.

Research in recent years has shown older people are acquiring sexually transmitted infections, from chlamydia and syphilis to HIV, at much higher rates than people expect, and in some cases at rates similar to people in their early 20s, with at least some of it blamed on a lack of sex education among the over-65 crowd.

The new study is not the first to recognize the problem, either, as a 2009 study conducted at the University of Maryland found similar issues with caretakers at assisted-living facilities often directly interfering with budding relationships between residents based on standards that do not exist.

“Residents of assisted-living facilities have the right to certain things when they’re in institutional care, but there’s not an explicit right to sexuality,” Elisabeth Burgess, director of the Gerontology Institute at Georgia State and an author on the new study, said in a press release.

For the study, published in The Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, the researchers collected data at six assisted-living facilities in Atlanta, including participant observation and interviews with staff, residents and family.

While they found staff and administration at the facilities all regarded sex and intimate behavior as a right, they also offered justifications for strategies designed to dial down the chance of romance between residents.

While concern about consent in an environment with a higher likelihood sexual participants have some type of cognitive impairment is legitimate, the researchers report facility employees also gave many, often overlapping reasons for discouraging sex between residents.

Among the reasons for creating “an environment of surveillance,” the assisted-living facility employees noted safety, as well as the wishes of family members who want to discourage their parents and grandparents from engaging in new sexual relationships.

“There’s oversight and responsibility for the health and well-being of people who live there, but that does not mean denying people the right to make choices,” Burgess said. “If you have a policy, you can say to the family when someone moves in, here are our policies and this is how issues are dealt with. In the absence of a policy, it becomes a case-by-case situation, and you don’t have consistency in terms of what you do.”