Sex & surveillance: US assisted-living homes deny elders' right to intercourse, study says

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Elderly residents in assisted-living homes in the US are often denied the chance to have sex because of a lack of policies and a dominating “environment of surveillance” at the facilities, a study by the Gerontology Institute at Georgia State University has found.

“While assisted-living facilities have many rules, they typically lack systematic policies about how to manage sexual behavior among residents ― which falls under residents’ rights,” Elisabeth Burgess, an author of the study and director of the Gerontology Institute, said in a statement. 

Nearly 1 million Americans currently live in assisted-living facilities, according to the Gerontology Institute. The findings, published in the Journals of Gerontology: Social Sciences, highlight a conflict between autonomy and independence in assisted-living facilities, and the lack of sexual freedom.

“Residents of assisted-living facilities have the right to certain things when they’re in institutional care, but there’s not an explicit right to sexuality,” Burgess said.

“There’s oversight and responsibility for the health and wellbeing of people who live there, but that does not mean denying people the right to make choices,” she stressed.

The head of the Gerontology Institute added: “If you have a policy, you can say to the family when someone moves in, here are our policies and this is how issues are dealt with. In the absence of a policy, it becomes a case-by-case situation, and you don’t have consistency in terms of what you do.”

Researchers collected data at six Atlanta-area assisted-living facilities which differed in size, location, price, ownership type and resident demographics. Research involved interviews with administrative and care staff, as well as with residents and family members.

Although staff and administrators acknowledged that residents had a right to have sex, in reality they provided "justifications for exceptions and engaged in strategies that created an environment of surveillance, which discouraged and prevented sexual and intimate behavior," Georgia State University said on its website, citing the study.

It said that local administrators and staff usually gave "overlapping reasons for steering residents away from each other," denying residents’ right to sexual life by citing responsibility for their health and safety.