Don’t ask don’t tell: Helping health professionals to better address the sexual health needs of their older clients

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Research consistently tells us that health professionals (HPs) can experience significant barriers to addressing the sexual and intimacy needs of their senior clients. Barriers include the HP believing that the topic is private to older people and that to discuss it would cause embarrassment or offence; assuming that older adults are not sexually active or if they are their sex life is not as important to them as their general health; having a lack of time during the appointment to raise the issue of sex; and holding the viewpoint that patients should raise the topic themselves.

The last point is particularly interesting because it contrasts with what older clients tend to think themselves: when asked (as a result of participating in research projects) the majority feel that the HP should be the one to bring it up.

Clearly, psychological factors play a key role. And this is not only through the internalisation of negative age-related stereotypes (e.g. the asexuality of old age) by HPs and older adults alike, but also in relation to HP-client communication and feeling ‘comfortable’ to mention that, for example, a certain drug may affect their libido.

Breaking down barriers to effective sexual health care is really important whatever the age of the client group. But when it comes to older people, a whole host of intervening factors enter the mix.

And this is why I’m delighted to tell you that we* have secured funding to explore the topic further. In our two year project ‘IntimAge: Health and Social Care Promotion Materials That Focus on Intimacy and Sexuality in the Third Age’ we will develop and implement new and effective tools that will help HPs and older clients overcome such communication difficulties. Update: click to access the free IntimAge learning resource.

The project objectives include the development of a flexible model that will raise HPs awareness and understanding of sexuality in older people, guidelines for HPs to use in their assessment of older clients, a toolbox containing a range of materials that will be useful for practitioners and an interactive e-learning platform for trainers and learners.

We envisage that the project outcomes will be valuable to a range of organisations, stakeholders, health and social care practitioners, and the general public. We start work on the project soon – I’ll keep you updated of our progress!

*The project partners are based in Slovenia, Austria, Northern Ireland, Italy, Greece, UK and Germany.

See my journal article for further information about the barriers HPs and older people face when it comes to sexual health care, including references to support the information I have presented here.

Thank you to Erasmus+ for supporting this project

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  1. Or, maybe that should read, Congratulations! 😉

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