When Gayle Doll began her career, she set out on a completely different path from the one she is on today.
“I started as elementary art teacher, and never in a million years would have seen myself as a sex researcher for old people,” the Kansas State University professor and director of the Center for Aging says.
Doll, 60, is considered one of the nation’s foremost experts on sexuality in long-term care, a path that began as she investigated quality of life issues in long-term care.
“I can’t think of any area that is more interesting to work in,” she says. “So many times I am called a sex educator or specialist, but it’s all about intimacy for me. For older adults, that’s what they need … We’ve been socialized to believe that older adults are asexual, and I don’t believe that’s true.
“The most incredible thing is just to help people to become aware. If you like sex now, you’ll like sex later,” she says. In one nursing home where they did a 75-minute training, six months later she returned to see that providers “were using Do Not Disturb signs, they were pushing beds together, they were putting mattresses on the floor and sometimes for couples they’d book them a hotel room…I was kind of born again,” after seeing that, she says.
One resident at Kansas’ Meadowlark Hills, Cameron Beatty, 72, says he has “liked the heck out of” being a part of a gerontology class with Doll and students.
“From what I can see, she is really serious about what she does, although she doesn’t take herself too seriously,” Beatty says.
A Doll class this summer on sexuality in aging involves students conducting interviews with different cohorts and asking questions about how much seniors knew about sex before marriage, and their values.
In addition to better understanding of sexuality and dementia, Doll notes that LGBT issues are “under-researched.”
“The party line is there are an awful lot of people who go back into the closet when they go into long-term care. When we did a survey in Kansas, we got a lot of ‘we don’t have any of those people here.’”
Cindy Luxem, the president of the Kansas Health Care Association, notes providers “will fill a room to hear [Doll] speak.”
Doll “is relentless … and has strong convictions,” Luxem notes. While the pair are friends, they’ve butted heads over issues such as pay-for performance, with Luxem calling some of Doll’s ideas “too academic.”
Still, she notes “Gayle also understands daily operations, the real-life side of things. She’s a lot of fun to work with.”
That fun also extends to her personal life, where activities include traveling with her husband, Rick, school superintendent of Lawrence, KS. The couple has lived separately for several years due to their careers.
“I absolutely love my job, and he loves his job. We party and play on the weekends,” she notes.
She also has not left art behind, with painting and quilting remaining hobbies. And she is “a bit of a fitness nut,” she says.
Having recently received tenure, Doll says she feels like she is brimming with ideas. Having taken time off to raise three sons, who are all now grown, she says she sometimes feel like a “late bloomer” compared to her peers.
“To have people call you an expert in your field is really daunting,” she says. “But the good thing about gerontology is you become more of an expert as you get older.”
Completes bachelor’s degree in art education at McPherson College (KS)
Finishes master’s degree in exercise physiology with a concentration in aging and health at Kansas State University
Begins as graduate teaching assistant, Kansas State
Completes doctoral degree with a concentration on aging and long-term care at KSU
Receives Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching Award, Kansas State University
Named director at Kansas State’s Center on Aging
Name Tilford Fellow, Kansas State
Receives Mature Media award for Sexuality in Long-Term Care, published in 2011
Achieves tenure at Kansas State