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Sex in the Nursing Home? The Surprising Facts About Senior Sexuality

Sex pervades our culture. Sex tapes skyrocket celebrities to fame, and politicians' careers are derailed when their sexual dalliances inevitably surface (just ask Anthony Weiner). So much of modern life is sexualized. Until, suddenly, it isn’t. Apparently, your sexual drive is supposed to power down sometime around when you open the mailbox and see an AARP membership card. It is commonly accepted that sexual appetite diminishes with age. Consequently, there are few provisions in place to protect our sexual rights once we enter nursing homes, as was recently illustrated in an infographic by Bloomberg.

Of course, my mom was the one to enlighten me about these statistics. She informed me that she was “riveted to the infographic” and “quite concerned.” And rightfully so. My mom is a baby boomer, and over the next several decades, hers will become the largest generation of senior citizens in U.S. history. And you can bet they will want all of their rights — sexual rights included.

While sex has become less controversial in daily life (we’ve certainly drifted from our Puritan roots), it’s somehow still taboo to consider the sexual rights of the geriatric population. Somewhere along the line, the idea of sex got tangled up with the concepts of youth and virility. Which led to the idea that sex is only for the young and healthy, and even the misconception that sex is dangerous for the elderly.

There is no proof of that. A 2007 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine said that 53% of people between the ages of 65 and 74 are sexually active, and though that number decreases to 26% for individuals aged between 75 and 85, sexual desire clearly burns long into one's twilight years.

Only 18 states have laws to address conjugal visits in nursing homes. And only four states have provisions for non-spouse partner rights. Most states don’t require nursing homes to offer private spaces to their guests; when elderly people check in, they check their privacy at the door. There is federal legislation with some language about promoting and protecting the rights of each resident, but it seems such rights are open for interpretation.

This issue isn't just about conjugal visits; it’s about consent. Another reason that elder-care facilities skirt the issue of sexual rights is the question of how to ensure that dementia patients have the mental capacity to consent to sex. Is it still adultery if two patients have sex, but have forgotten that they are not married to each other?

Unfortunately, caregivers do not tend to be trained to deal with these ethical issues, and often impose their belief systems upon those who are in their care. Caregivers are also put in the position of making judgement calls, as employees are often required to notify authorities if they think they have witnessed nonconsensual sex. Nursing homes must be self-reliant when it comes to codifying procedures for dealing with sexually active patients, as there are few state and federal guidelines.

The baby boomers grew up during the sexual revolution (or so I’ve heard). And they’ve watched the struggle for equal rights play out on a global scale. There’s no reason why people shouldn’t have equal rights from birth to death.

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