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KU researcher will address policies, trainings in place for sexuality in nursing homes

Monday, February 24, 2020

LAWRENCE — Research shows that a wide array of sexual behaviors takes place at nursing homes, even if the common assumption is that residents are not sexually active. A University of Kansas professor has won a grant to determine what policies, practices and staff trainings Kansas long-term care facilities have in place and what improvements could be made to improve quality of life for residents and protections for staff.

A study published in 2013 found that sexuality in care facilities is often overlooked as people largely view the population as asexual and that policies were rarely put in place to address the subject. Sarah Jen, assistant professor of social welfare at KU, received a $20,000 New Faculty Grant to conduct an update and expansion of the previous study, led by Gayle Doll, director of the Kansas State University Center on Aging. The study will conduct a survey and in-depth interviews with care facility administrators across Kansas. It will build on the previous examination of whether facilities have policies, standard practices and staff training in place to address sexual expression among residents.

“One of the things I wanted to look at the most was staff training. Since the last study, has anyone developed trainings and put them in place?” Jen said. “The hope is to do a survey with as many administrators as possible, but we’ll also add a component to conduct in-depth interviews as well.”

As part of the study, Jen will address questions of gender and sexual diversity, such as determining if facilities are aware of residents who identify as LGBTQ and whether sexual expression is addressed differently among these populations. The study will also help determine what sorts of training and competencies are needed in order to provide effective services.

The project will also conduct interviews with long-term care ombudsmen on issues of sexuality in facilities. Jen will interview ombuds about how often they have been called in to address questions or concerns about sexual behavior in facilities, if issues of sexual diversity or consent were involved, what type of decisions were made and how residents were affected.

“That way we’ll also be able to speak to trends, not just what is happening at one facility,” Jen said.

Doll’s prior study addressed demographic characteristics of facilities, such as how many residents lived there, if it was a for-profit or nonprofit facility, if it was a chain, faith-based facility and similar variables. Jen, who is partnering with Doll on the current study, will look further into such characteristics and if they influence the types of policies, practices and trainings they have in place. One of the goals of the comparisons is to find areas for growth and where trainings and interventions could help improve care and work environment and who is involved in crafting policies and trainings that are in place.

“For the most part, the practices that a facility engages in are conducted on a facility-to-facility basis,” Jen said. “The hope is that we can identify potential gaps in training and how we can fill that gap.”

When surveys and interviews are completed, information will be shared with facilities, administrators and staff, as well as identified areas for growth and improvement and examples of successful policies, practices and trainings.

“I think it’s entirely possible people are doing really creative and innovative things and right now we don’t have a way of sharing those. The project will help us point out those things that are changing for the better already,” Jen said.

The 2013 study found that staff and families often assume sexuality is not an issue for residents of long-term care facilities, or that if it is, it’s something they’d rather not think about. Sexuality for aging populations is not something that should be assumed to be lost at a certain point, and doesn’t have to be scary, taboo or handled with fear, Jen said. With better understanding of individuals’ needs as well as policies and trainings, quality of life for residents and work environment for employees can improve.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons