When they moved into an aged care home, Grace and Arthur* had been married almost 50 years. Their new accommodation consisted of two single beds on opposite sides of a single room too small to personalise with their own furniture from home, plus an ensuite bathroom.
But when they asked to push the beds together, so they could lie together as husband and wife, as they had always done, the aged care home staff refused. As a result, Arthur, who had early signs of dementia, cried himself to sleep every night because he longed to be held by his wife. This story, and others like it, is incredibly common in the Australian residential aged care system.
Whether we intend it or not, many of us will die in an institution if we live long enough. In Australia, 43 percent of deaths in people aged over 65 occur in residential aged care and this increases to 62 percent in those who live to be over 85.
Approximately 51,000 aged care residents in Australia are married or in de facto relationships, representing one third of all permanent residents. No government agency keeps data on how many couples manage to remain together once they require residential aged care services. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that many couples are involuntarily separated at the point at which they need help with day-to-day living. Separating partners in this way causes distress for the couple and their family unit as a whole. Life as they knew it will never be the same and many partners grieve for the companionship and closeness of the relationship that supported them through most of their adult life.
Older couples face many hurdles in order to be placed in residential aged care together and, if successful in overcoming these obstacles, they often find themselves dictated to by the individual policies and practices within institutions. It is not uncommon for partners to be forced to sleep in separate beds, separate rooms, or even separate wings of an aged care facility. Such decisions are seemingly made on an ad hoc basis.
Once in a facility, partners face many privacy intrusions, making it difficult to maintain their relationship as a couple. Whether they now live together or not, where in the institution can they find the time and place simply to hold each other, to snuggle up in bed, chat and feel close without interruption? A single bed in a semi-public space, with staff coming and going, is an unsuitable setting for such activities. Very few aged care facilities give consideration to such needs and couples’ privacy is often a very low priority.
With this in mind, it seems timely to investigate whether the present culture in residential aged care is suitable for the next generation. This is the subject of my current research - to investigate the needs and desires of partnered baby boomers in order to identify potential conflicts that may arise as they enter aged care.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.
Alison Rahn is a practicing sex therapist based in Australia. She is currently undertaking a PhD at the University of New England. Her research project, ‘Baby Boomer Sexuality: Exploring the Wants, Needs and Available Options for Partnered Individuals and Couples in Australian Residential Aged Care’ is gathering data on the sexual and intimacy needs of partnered baby boomers and their expectations of residential aged care, should they become future customers. Alison is a keynote speaker at the Privacy Research Symposium in Auckland on 15 December 2016.
Image credit: Sweden road sign - via Wikipedia commons.