Guest Columns

Let's talk about sex

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Robin Dessel
Robin Dessel

For all living under our roof, The Hebrew Home at Riverdale believes that there is still life to be lived, pleasures to be had and sexuality to be celebrated, not curtailed.  I will interrupt myself to pre-empt the questions that may immediately come to the reader's mind when trying to reconcile the notion of sexuality and nursing homes.

  • Should sexuality be permitted in a nursing home?
  • Should older adults living in a nursing home be having sex at their age?
  • Are older adults still interested and able?
  • Should older adults with Alzheimer's disease be permitted to have sex?
  • Should nursing homes be responsible for the sexual needs of their residents?

As Director of Memory Care, Sexual Rights Educator and a “boomer-ette”, my simple and abiding answer is YES. 

Sexual expression should be sanctioned and rightly belongs in residential healthcare settings. Further, it merits policy to aid staff/clinicians in practice. Sexual rights should not be subject to change based upon age, place of residence, sexual preference or the decision making of others, whether an older adult living in the community, a resident in a nursing home or a tenant in assisted living. After all, life in a healthcare setting is more than bedpans and call bells. This is particularly true when baby boomers hit the scene as more savvy, sexy and informed consumers. All things medical will have to make room for the livability factor.

The mantra of the day is staying healthy to live longer and better. However, toward what end, if our pursuit of happiness in late life is checked at the nursing home's front door?  What becomes of the pleasures which sustained us in a “work hard – play hard” lifestyle, and which will hopefully sustain us in facing what is to come? 

The Hebrew Home at Riverdale shook the healthcare rafters in the 90's with its policy and program on sexual rights. This was ground-breaking stuff – sex in the nursing home.  If and when the time comes, whether as a professional or a consumer, I imagine wanting more out of my healthcare experience. As the Home's logo suggests, I would wish to “live well.”

The Hebrew Home's collective works on older adult sexuality began in 1995 with the nation's first policy to recognize “Resident Rights to Intimacy and Sexual Expression” in residential healthcare. The policy defines resident sexuality, residents' rights, staff and organizational responsibilities. A 2013 policy update reflects today's older adults, including those with Alzheimer's and dementia, who will enter a long-term care facility with their sexual rights in tow and fully expecting they will be honored. 

There will always be a line-up of challenges to advancing and accepting sexuality in nursing homes. I make the analogy to the line-up of apps for Apple – there's no shortage or slow-down in the marketplace, but an increase in supply to meet the demand. In both cases there is no turning back.  Technology is imbedded in our lives, as is sexuality.  For those of us who struggled with the technology era, we ultimately came around and know that we cannot live without it.

Robin Dessel, LMSW is the director of memory care and a sexual rights educator at Hebrew Home at Riverdale.

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Guest columns are written by long-term care industry experts, ranging from academics and thought leaders to administrators and CEOs.

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