U of L to explore safe sexual expression for dementia patients

Photo by malin k

There is much we still don’t understand about degenerative neurological conditions like dementia or Alzheimer’s that affect so many in Canada and the world over.

But the University of Lethbridge aims to explore and create a toolkit surrounding positive and safe sexual expression for the benefit of those living with dementia.

Dr. Julia Brassolotto, a professor in the faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Lethbridge, along with co-investigators Drs. Pia Kontos and Alisa Grigorovich, are leading the team to develop this toolkit.

“For many residents with dementia, intimate relationships can be really grounding,” said Brassolotto.

“There’s a lot of benefit, emotionally, physically and mentally, for residents to still engage in some form of intimacy, especially when they’ve lost a lot of other social roles and activities and are living in continuing care.”

The team received a $325,000 grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the research will be conducted between two long-term care homes, one located in rural Alberta and the other in urban Ontario.

The first phase of the research will include observations, questionnaires and interviews with those living with dementia, their family members and caregivers, and will be conducted virtually or in-person depending on safety measures.

The second phase will result in the creation of a toolkit that will help individuals and organizations support sexual and intimate expression for those living with dementia.

While the science has showed that sexual expression has a variety of benefits for older adults — such as improved quality of life and mental health benefits — there are barriers those living with dementia face.

These can include a lack of privacy, potential negative perceptions or attitudes from staff and family involved in the life of the individual with dementia and a need to balance both a person’s autonomy and to protect them from harm.

“We never suggest care staff or other residents should have to be accepting of unwanted expressions,” Brassolotto said. “With related training, toolkits and policies in place, care staff will be better prepared and equipped to navigate sexual expression.

Currently, not many resources are available to help educate or train staff on the subject, and as a result, they improvise to the best of their ability, according to the release from the University of Lethbridge.

The situations they encounter and their responses in practice vary wildly. Sometimes individuals living with dementia may become disinterested sexually or they may express interest towards staff and other residents who are uninterested.

“Our goal is to help support this component of people’s lives that feels very human and connected and gives them joy and pleasure, while also being very careful to make sure it’s safe, that interactions are wanted and that people aren’t getting harmed,” Brassolotto said.