Getting intimate: national study investigates the sexual health of older Australians

A national study has been launched to investigate the sexual health of older Australians due to a rise in reported rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in those over the age of 60. Titled “Sex, Age & Me”, and launched by the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society at La Trobe University, in conjunction with the National Ageing Research Institute and the University of Sheffield, it seeks to identify the factors that may be behind these increased rates of infection. The study will investigate the sexual relationships of elderly people along with safe sex practices used (or ignored).

Many of us are living longer now, and attitudes towards marriage, sex and sexual orientation have changed. People are divorcing and re-coupling. A spouse may die, leaving a partner to face many years of loneliness. Internet dating has now become ‘a thing’, and there are more social activities available for the elderly.

With these changes rapidly occurring in the elderly community, many may be naïvely exposing themselves to sexual health dangers. New singles may be oblivious to sexual health issues such as chlamydia, gonorrhoea and herpes. A report from the Kirby Institute indicated that reported rates of gonorrhoea had more than doubled in those over the age of 60 while reports of chlamydia had significantly increased.

Dr Bianca Fileborn, a researcher on the study, said that many of us have the assumption that older people don’t have sex, which is why they’ve been excluded in previous studies. She said they were unsure of what they may find, but it was important to investigate their activities, in particular in regards to safe sex and sexual health.

Dr Fileborn said that certain issues needed to be explored, such as whether age-related changes inhibited safe sex practices, or if the elderly were aware of sexual health risks.

Through the study, the researchers hope to identify the habits and practices of sexually active elderly Australians so that they can better help them with their new experiences. For example, an elderly man that has found himself single after decades of marriage may struggle with the idea of using condoms after a long time or perhaps for the first time.

As Dr Fileborn says, “Hopefully we are all going to be older one day, if we’re lucky. It’s important to be identifying some of these issues and starting these conversations so that we can all have sexually healthy lives right through the life course.”

We all want intimacy, no matter what age we are. There is still a public perception that elderly people having sex are somehow wrong or distasteful and that all sexual activity should stop. Studies such as this will hopefully help lift the negativity surrounding the topic of elderly people’s sexual lives.

Sexual health for seniors - sage Institute of Aged CAareJudgemental and dismissive labels such as ‘dirty old man’ have been used to describe sexually active older people. These types of attitudes have not only been unhelpful but have left us as a community unaware of the issues with sexual health and elderly and how to move forward and provide support.

As Dr Fileborn points out, this type of stereotypical thinking is devaluing and dehumanising. As we age, our bodies change, our hormones dwindle, and our sexual urges may not be as strong, but we are all still physical beings, and we are all still allowed to enjoy intimacy and sex.

Sage Institute of Aged Care – it’s more than a job, it’s a rewarding career.

Vicki Tuchtan

Vicki Tuchtan

Vicki Tuchtan is the Academic Director at Sage Institute of Education. She oversees learning processes, teaching outcomes, resources and course development. A passionate advocate for bettering standards of training in Australia, she is currently writing her PhD thesis on defining quality training in the Australian vocational education sector.
Vicki Tuchtan

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