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Sex past seventy – aren't you too old for that sort of stuff?

Using the words ‘sex’ and ‘older people’ usually results in a somewhat awkward pause, but attitudes are changing and this taboo subject is starting to be talked about.

Older people are increasingly seeking information about their sexual wellbeing
Older people are increasingly seeking information about their sexual wellbeing

Older people are sexually active. Last year, the University of Manchester found 54 percent of men and 31 percent of women over the age of 70 were still sexually active in the UK.

Meanwhile in Australia, a 2012 Kirby Institute report showed that within five years, reported rates of gonorrhoea among the over 60s had more than doubled while chlamydia had significantly increased.

Over the past few years, there has also been an increasing awareness and recognising the rights of older lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI )people, and the Rainbow Tick is now accrediting more organisations as an LGBTI-friendly providers of aged care services.

Older people are increasingly seeking information about their sexual wellbeing and service providers are seeking support to promote sexual wellbeing and safety, which is why the OPAL (Older People And Sexuality) Institute has been launched.

Founded by Dr Catherine Barrett, the website aims to help promote the sexual rights and empower older people through the provision of information.

Dr Barrett has long been long-term older people’s sexuality advocate and her many contributions in this area include establishing a Sexual Health and Ageing Program at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS) La Trobe University.

While there is growing awareness and evidence, The OPAL Institute and others believe there is still a long way to go before older people's sexual rights are recognised.

Just recently, research by the University of New England has revealed couples in aged care facilities are being given little to no privacy in their intimate and sexual relationships despite legal protections. Furthermore it’s often the staff who prevent couples from having this intimacy. 

Ph.D Candidate, Alison Rahn, who co-authored the paper Conflicting Agendas: The Politics of Sex in Aged Care, says: “The culture in aged care facilities also exists because most of the staff tend to be young and of course the residents are old and it is inconceivable, revolting or impossible to think that couples would want intimacy.”

Ms Rahn’s research also included searching parliamentary documents and newspapers for proposed legislation that may have affected the experience of couples in aged care.

She found attempts at legislative reform have been met with mixed responses.

“The most opposition comes from religious conservatives. About 60-percent of residential aged care facilities are run by church or charitable institutions in Australia, so they have a lot of say,” she highlights.

“The majority of facilities lack formal policies or guidelines stating their position on residents’ expressing themselves sexually.”

The OPAL Institute believes we are still very ageist - particularly when it comes to sexuality and it is calling for more conversations, for more information and for greater focus on positive aspects of sexuality.

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