AAG Hot Topic 2019

Intimacy and ageing

This hot topic covers the whole spectrum of social connectedness in later-life, ranging from loving sexual relationships to loneliness and everything in between. Supporting intimacy and addressing loneliness will involve examining the evidence base and rethinking policy and practice approaches at the individual, family, neighbourhood and societal levels.

Despite evidence that people continue to desire and pursue sexual expression in later life, the stereotype of older people as asexual beings still lingers. This hot topic considers how longer lives and changing norms affect older people’s intimate relationships. It also looks at the impacts if we fail to acknowledge the role that sexuality plays in health and quality of life of older people. Some of the complex issues raised include: What is the role and meaning of sexuality and intimacy for older people?  What happens to older couples when one of them has dementia? How can we support lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people with their sexuality and identity in later life? What can we do to prevent abuse of older people in intimate relationships?

At the other end of the spectrum, there is evidence that around ten per cent of older people are chronically lonely, and that this is a significant risk factor for morbidity and mortality. Some groups appear to be at particular risk (including Aboriginal people; culturally and linguistically diverse people; LGBTI people; people in rural areas; Carers; and homeless people). In 2016, the Commissioner for Senior Victorians concluded that the prevalence and impact of loneliness among older people warrants recognition as a key policy issue. This hot topic considers the range of strategies that attempt to address loneliness in later life, including targeted ageing programs, new technology and general social services (such as housing and age-friendly infrastructure).

Falling somewhere in between these two extremes, there are many other forms of social connectedness that affect older people’s quality of life.  For example: 

  • Friends and family – how can older people with mobility/transport issues, hearing loss or dementia be supported to maintain these relationships?
  • Aged care and other service providers – what role can aged care workers, health professionals and hairdressers play in identifying the signs of loneliness and preventing elder abuse?
  • Social groups (such as Bowling Clubs and Men’s Sheds) and community facilities (such as neighbourhood houses, libraries and parks) – how can they better foster opportunities for social engagement?

Last year, our hot topic highlighted the critical role that the workforce plays in supporting older people to age well, as well as the work that older people do as employees, volunteers and Carers.  This year, we are building on this by considering how the workforce can support older people to maintain intimate relationships, and how supporting older people to do paid or unpaid work can address loneliness.

The 2019 Glenda Powell Travelling Fellow is Dr Catherine Barrett.