Operators prepare: Sex in senior living is going to boom when a new generation ushers in residents with views much different than their predecessors.
Baby boomers are reaching retirement age in waves, meaning that more seniors — who have less strict views on sex — will force operators to address the issue, as they show no signs of changing their behaviors even when moving into senior housing, says Gayle Doll, director of the Center on Aging at Kansas State University and author of “Sexuality in Long-Term Care.”
Researchers suggest that as many as four out of five boomers are having sex — and most of it’s unprotected, causing the rate of STDs to double in the past decade.
This sexually active cohort, Doll says, is more willing to have short-term commitments and one-night-stands, a dramatic shift from the behaviors of the Silent and Greatest generations.
“The people who are over 80 in nursing homes really never had any education about sexuality — they believed that sex was meant to be for procreation and we were all socialized to believe that about older people,” Doll says. “But baby boomers, we think, are going to be very different. They grew up in a time when sexual freedom was where it’s at. We’re just trying to prepare people for what some might want in the future.”
And experts say a whole new set of challenges awaits the senior living industry in the coming years, when baby boomers are expected to make up one-quarter of the U.S. population.
“Get a (Private) Room!”
Coming of age in the 1960s and ’70s, the boomers were part of the sexual revolution, a social movement that challenged existing attitudes, behaviors and regulations surrounding sexuality. During this time, many boomers became activists, making them more likely to voice their opinions or take action when necessary.
“When they see things they don’t like they find a way to change them,” Doll says. “I think this plays out in the sexual expression in the [senior living] home as well. Boomers will not see why they can’t continue to live the life they had lived prior to the move to the facility. I think there will be a much greater demand for private rooms.”
So before welcoming the more than 76 million baby boomers living in the U.S. today, operators will need to make changes to their living spaces to accommodate boomers’ higher expectations.
“While the current generation living in nursing homes experienced hardships and may be more than satisfied with the housing options currently provided, it is quite likely that the boomer generation will find them lacking,” Doll says.
Once the boomers are in the door, operators face a second challenge: addressing the various health risks related to sex.
Low rates of condom use and, consequently, an increase in the number of sexually transmitted diseases among boomers, pose a significant risk to senior living residents.
“This is something we should be paying more attention to,” Doll says.
Without the risk of pregnancy, condom use among the boomers remains lower than even the adolescent age group , with only 13.7% of men and 9.7% of women ages 45 to 60 reporting using a condom. In the 61-plus group, only 5.1% of men and 7.4% of women report using condoms, according to the 2010 National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior conducted by Indiana University researchers.
This behavior, experts say, has significantly increased the rate of STDs among seniors, particularly cases of syphilis and chlamydia, which increased 43% between 2005 and 2009, according to an AARP report.
But these STDs can also lead to other illnesses and common health problems, such as urinary inefficiency and pain in the abdomen, which may not be recognized — or treated — as a symptom of an STD.
So experts say providers will need to educate residents on safe sex and communicate with families and physicians to ensure the overall wellbeing of residents.
Treating Sex as a Basic Need
Still, providers will also need to focus efforts on training staff to understand the issue and to set aside their own beliefs in order to take care of boomers’ wants and needs.
“I think it’s very important for [operators] to be aware of the fact that there are a lot of age-related prejudices that come forward,” says Sandi Flores, director of clinical services and founder and CEO of Sandi Flores Consulting Group, which provides clinical management for a number of senior living providers. “We have to understand that we’re admitting a whole person, a whole human being — we’re not admitting a disease. This becomes their home; what they did in their home previously is what they’re going to do in their home with us.”
And despite the overwhelming risks associated with sex, intimacy and sexual relationships do offer some health benefits.
Research suggest that boomers’ sex lives factor into their overall wellbeing: 85% of male boomers and 61% of female boomers report sexual satisfaction is critical to their quality of life.
Penny Cook, executive director of the Colorado Culture Change Coalition and long-term care social worker, says sexual relationships can also help decrease depression among residents.
“[Depression is] a huge health issue. One of the things I think is so important to [realize] is that when a person gets older, they’re touched less,” she says. “We live in a culture where hugging has become a norm, but as you become older you have fewer of those chances to have any sort of touch.”
So sexual or intimate relationships can help residents feel happier and more satisfied with their quality of life.
“If I were in marketing I might suggest that the [provider] recognizes that intimacy is a basic human need,” Doll says. “At a time in one’s life when so much is being lost it makes sense that we should try to maintain these basic needs through a greater understanding of the part of personality that makes intimacy possible — sexuality.”
Written by Emily Study