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By Rochelle Baker

Sex is a hot topic, but talking about it can be chilling.

If you shiver at the prospect of discussing your sex life with your doctor, imagine your doctor is the same age as your grandchildren and someone who probably thinks you aren’t even sexually active. Cold enough for you?

A community-university collaboration is offering help for seniors seeking frank advice about sex.  Partners from AIDS Committee of Newfoundland and Labrador (ACNL), researchers at Memorial University and experts from the provincial health-care system are collaborating on a seniors’ sexual health manual that will be distributed by the Seniors Resource Centre of Newfoundland and Labrador (SRCNL).

“In spite of myths or ageist attitudes, older adults are still very much interested in experiencing intimacy and enjoying sexual activities.” — Mary Ennis

Mary Ennis, who co-ordinates a program at SRCNL, is the consultant for the project. Having reviewed the research literature and compiled results from a provincial survey on seniors’ sexual health, she says the findings emphasize something many of us already suspect.

“Older adults are often reluctant to speak about their sexuality and their sexual behaviours. Studies have also shown that health-care professionals can be hesitant to initiate these discussions with their patients.”

“This is a timely project,” said Gerard Yetman, ACNL’s executive director. “By the end of 2015, half of the North Americans living with HIV were over the age of 50. ACNL wants to promote healthy sexuality across the lifespan, but most programs target youth. We want to give seniors the same opportunity to become educated about their unique sexual health concerns.”

Ms. Ennis agrees.

“There is a lot of room here for seniors and health-care professionals to start communicating better about sexual health and sexual pleasure. In spite of myths or ageist attitudes, older adults are still very much interested in experiencing intimacy and enjoying sexual activities.”

Survey results

Mr. Yetman says the survey results revealed that neither sexual diversity nor desire diminishes with age. He says older adults want information, not just about the physical challenges that occur with aging but also about how to continue having pleasurable sex after medical diagnoses or procedures.

“Some are looking for information about health risks associated with aids to sexual stimulation such as penis rings and vibrators,” he said. “Others are asking about specific sexual health issues facing transgender people, such as women with prostate cancer or men who menstruate.”

He also notes that some seniors requested a section on preventing sexual abuse and violence.

How to say ‘no’

“They want to learn how to say ‘no’ to some practices,” he said. “And there are some who want to find ways of starting new relationships based on being friendly without sexual intentions.”

Mr. Yetman will outline the project to the Research Exchange Group (REG) on Aging at the Newfoundland and Labrador Centre for Applied Health Research (NLCAHR) later this month.

Dr. Sharon Buehler, a retired professor of community health and humanities, and Dr. Gail Wideman, a gerontologist and faculty member at the School of Social Work, co-convene the REG on Aging. Dr. Buehler says the group is a gathering of established and budding researchers and community members with an interest in aging, providing potential for collaboration.

“Each presentation reveals the diversity of perspectives on this fascinating and challenging area of investigation. And since I’m definitely in the target group at nearly 80, I’m encouraged by the work being done to benefit my cohort,” she said.

Dr. Wideman served on the planning committee for the manual and helped develop the survey. She says the REG on Aging is committed to community-university partnerships.

“For the manual, our community partners―Gerard and the ACNL―led the project,” she said. “As a university partner, I provided research and survey advice, but the success of this project is really attributable to Gerard and Mary’s hard work.”

Collaborative community

Dr. Wideman also says the collaboration is an exemplar of community-engaged scholarship: knowledge-building and community impact are parallel objectives.

“Several members of the REG on Aging serve with me on an advisory committee to establish a Centre on Aging Research at Memorial and our vision is to have community partnerships like this one play a feature role.”

Mr. Yetman hopes the project sheds light on an important issue. He says they want to help normalize seniors’ sexuality by helping the aging population become comfortable talking about their sexual health.

“Our objectives are to bring awareness to seniors’ sexual health issues and to keep our seniors safe.”

The manual project will be featured at the February 24 meeting of the REG on Aging; with financial support from the federal initiative New Horizons, ACNL will provide the manual to the public in April 2016.

To register for the presentation or join a research exchange group, please contact Rochelle.baker@med.mun.ca.

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