What we can (still) learn from Dr. Ruth

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Elizabeth Newman
Elizabeth Newman

Long-term care administrators generally aren't a shy bunch: They'll freely tell you about their challenges with regulations, their political ideologies and why they entered the field.

But there's one area where there are a lot of questions and concerns that are hard to share (at least with a reporter): Sexuality and seniors.

We've written about this before and received a strong response, which is why it shouldn't have been in the least surprising to see the throngs of folks lined up to see Dr. Ruth Westheimer, speaking during LeadingAge's annual conference on Monday. 

She fittingly fronted an exhibit called Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll. It was downright inspiring to see this 89-year-old woman, all of 4 feet 7 inches, still commanding her microphone and a rapt crowd, and making jokes. She knew her audience well, talking about the challenges senior living providers face.

To back up for younger readers, it's hard to overstate what Dr. Ruth meant to a generation of folks, or how important she was to the culture in the 1980s. Through her show “Good Sex! With Dr. Ruth Westheimer” she answered people's question in a call-in radio show. Remember, this was before the Internet, and people often didn't want to query their friends with questions like “My girlfriend is more sexually experienced than me; what do I do?”

Dr. Ruth gave people a safe space. (Also an FYI for the young and tech-savvy: Dr. Ruth said that today a reliance on smartphones is making it harder for young people to communicate and that the art of conversation is becoming lost, which will eventually lead to the downfall of healthy sex. So maybe put away your iPhone on your next date if sex is relevant to your interests.)

Dr. Ruth had a few practical tips for those interested in being intimate after age 50. They included not drinking too much, avoiding a reliance on a vibrator, not taking Viagra if it's not prescribed and having sex in the morning. She also spoke to how providers should create a safe place for sex for their residents.

“If a widow starts a new relationship, there are big issues with the children,” she said, as audience members nodded. But it's important to provide that space for people, she said.

Dr. Ruth suggested that nursing homes post their dating rules, and have a hotel-like room with a do-not-disturb sign for residents who want to be intimate. After the presentation Treva Greaser, BSN, RN, the executive director at Schowalter Villa in Hesston, KS, said her continuing care retirement community used to have such a room, but then it needed the space back.

“We want to bring [the specially designated room] back,” she said. “We've had people in neighborhoods where people connected with each other. We've care-planned it. It's an important topic, and part of promoting life.”

That was the big takeaway of Dr. Ruth's message: Healthy, consensual sex can be achieved at any age.

“People have to be sexually literate,” she said. She commended and encouraged providers to tackle the issue head-on.

“Deal with it with humor and be brave,” she said.

Follow Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman @TigerELN.


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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.