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Intimate relationships in residential aged care: what factors influence staff decisions to intervene?


Intimacy contributes to our well-being and extends into older age, despite cognitive or physical impairment. However, the ability to enjoy intimacy and express sexuality is often compromised—or even controlled—when one moves into residential aged care. The aim of this study was to identify what factors influence senior residential aged care staff when they make decisions regarding resident intimate relationships and sexual expression. The study used vignette methodology and a postal survey to explore reactions to a fictionalised case study of a couple—Norm and Carol—who develop a close, mutually satisfying relationship. Staff were first asked whether they would intervene in the relationship. Using an innovative approach, several variations to the case study were then presented to explore whether views about intervening changed according to varying contextual factors. Findings indicated that over 90% of respondents initially agreed that the relationship should continue, and only 10% indicated they would intervene. However, when the case study was varied, respondents indicated they were more likely to intervene, particularly if Norm was exhibiting distress in Carol’s presence (89%), but also if Norm was married and his wife was living in the community (40%). Other factors including level of cognitive impairment and family disapproval were also found to influence staff views. This study provides insight into how residential aged care staff make decisions regarding the intimacy and sexuality of older people living in residential aged care and how personal views and values likely guide practice in the absence of formal policies.

  • aged
  • dementia
  • policy

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