A few months ago, I was reading an article by Ros Thomas in The West Australian. It discussed how men in retirement homes can often be very socially isolated. Whereas women in their senior years tend to gravitate towards social activities, some men can find it difficult to interact with others and as a result, become very lonely. Thomas was visiting a men’s group, created to give the male residents a place to talk to one another, share memories.
Imagine living in a place where the only people you see are staff and others like you: no longer living in the family home, no longer able to drive, no longer able to make decisions with regards to what food you’ll eat each week, or what activities you might choose to do. All your day to day routines are controlled by others, and while care facilities are much more flexible than in the past, it’s still an institution, and not the same as living in one’s own community, in one’s own home.
It’s not news that old age can be a lonely time for many, regardless of where they live. Living in one’s own home with a spouse and in the community one has known for many years can help stem those feelings of loneliness, but illness or frailness often necessitate a move to a care facility. In some cases (such as the centre where Thomas meets the men in her article), couples can only remain together if they require the same level of care. If one of them has a serious illness and needs a higher level of care, then the couple must be separated.
This strikes me as desperately sad, and illustrates an attitude towards older people which assumes that they have lost all their faculties, and are no longer able to make judgement or choices for themselves. Moreover, it takes an approach that it is care of the physical ailments which matter, and mental health issues associated with living apart from one’s lifelong companion are dismissed as less important. Not to mention the sex.
Because older people do have sex. Who knew? Of course, it’s not just older couples, but also older people who are not in long-term relationships. Apparently, people do not simply stop wanting or having sex when they hit 55.
Why would we think they do? Humans are sexual creatures. While our need for sex might change as we grow older, it’s a myth to think that people stop having or stop desiring sex when they hit retirement. Men in their later years who might hint at wanting sex are labelled ‘dirty old men’ and it’s not even a consideration that women of the same age might be interested. Our lack of acceptance that older people might want or have sex is one more way in which our society dismisses the elders in our society. It’s seen as something disgusting or unnatural.
Even worse are attitudes to older people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex. If our society is ignorant or insensitive to the concept of sex between heterosexual couples, it is worse for those elderly who are on the QUILTBAG spectrum. Their needs can be outright ignored, or they are discriminated against.
As much as it has been the rules of aged care facilities which have ruled out sexual relationships in the past, it’s also been the families, and especially the children, who have been resistant to their parents maintaining or pursuing sexual relationships. There is an ‘ew’ factor about one’s (elderly) parents having sex which carries over from our tween and teen years, and of course, when we’re that age, it’s understandable: to a teenager, the idea of anyone over 40 having sex is weird. However, by the time we’re adults, we probably should have the maturity to get over that.
And it’s not even just about the sex. Non-sexual touch is just as important. I think about the number of embraces and casual touch I receive everyday. Of course, my Offspring are very young, so they’re REALLY into the cuddles and the hanging-off-my-arms and trying to get on my back for a piggy-back when I’m crawling on the floor with a dustpan and broom. Really, it’s a bit too much! But even so, I can’t imagine going from living in a place where it is natural to be touched by, and to touch, other humans, to a place where I didn’t get much of that at all.
Thankfully, many aged care facilities are taking a more humane and compassionate attitude towards older people, both with regards to couples being able to live together, and with regards to the sexual needs of all their residents. They’re establishing guidelines and accepting that people in their care will want to have relationships. Obviously, there are issues to consider. The safety and care of all the people living in residential retirement villages is paramount, and it’s necessary to ensure that those who might suffer from conditions such as dementia are both supported and protected. Awareness between staff and residents about sexually transmitted disease and sexual assault is also vital. But there do exist some caring environments, where there is a welcoming and nurturing culture, and forethought for how important relationships are for human beings, regardless of their age. And I would like to think that as our population ages, our society is becoming more aware of how important it is that older people are treated always like ‘people’ and not simply dismissed as ‘old’.