20 Mar 2017

The right to intimacy

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 1:22 pm on 20 March 2017

A researcher exploring intimacy and sexuality among people living in aged-care facilities says residents' rights and safety are at risk because staff and families don't know how to deal with often complex situations.

Mark Henrickson is an associate professor at the School of Social Work at Massey University and has just finished a pilot study looking into intimacy, sexuality and the elderly.

Mark Henrickson from the School of Social Work at Massey University has finished a pilot study looking into intimacy issues and the elderly

Mark Henrickson from the School of Social Work at Massey University has finished a pilot study looking into intimacy issues and the elderly. Photo: Flickr

“When we get older we don’t lose our ability to fall in love, we don’t lose our ability to feel wanted and needed, we don’t lose our need for touch and for intimacy and those are very important things that don’t often get attended to.”

Henrickson says it is a mixed picture in New Zealand, with some care homes doing “a really good job” and others “quite anxious about sexuality and intimacy”.

“They are more likely to make a problem of the issue of older folks and sexuality.”

He says the subject should be out in the open.

“The idea we would be in a residential care facility and never have anyone touch us except to jab us or to wash us or for some other clinical reason is an incredibly depressing concept.”

There are also potential problems to do with consent and cognitive decline.

“In Iowa, a daughter filed a complaint against her own father because it was alleged he’d had sex with his own wife. That’s the level of anxiety people have around this issue.”

And it is a vexed topic, with children usually uncomfortable even thinking about their parents’ sexuality.

“Residential care facilities are usually marketed to the children of parents who are getting older and the whole idea of Nana having sex is just unimaginable to a lot of people.”

He says children might be quite surprised by some of the things they find out about their parents after they have moved into care.

“We are aware, for instance, of a couple that were used to cross-dressing in each other’s underclothes. That was very surprising. It didn’t come out until they were in a residential care facility.

“Staff originally said, ‘No, you can’t do that.' And then there was some conversation and it became, ‘Why not?’”

New Zealand has an unusual or unique caregiver profile, Henrickson says.

“A great number of New Zealand’s care workers are people coming in from overseas with often strongly held religious or personal values.”

Henrickson says that can be a particular problem for elderly people from “sexual and gender minorities”.

People in care homes are also known to hire sex workers, he says.

"It’s in all kinds of residential facilities, but no one is putting that in the brochures! It’s not the kind of thing that people want to talk about, that’s the kind of thing that the children of people in residential care get particularly anxious about. But we know there’s some of that going on.”

Massey University is hosting a symposium on Intimacy and Sexuality in Aged Care at the Auckland campus in April 2017.