June 3, 2010

Conference explores nuances of sexuality, aging, health care

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Author Bill Taverner discusses ways to better communicate with patients about sexuality and aging. (photo by Mary Donaldson)

Conference explores nuances of sexuality, aging, health care

A recent conference at Vanderbilt University School of Nursing gave health care providers the chance to learn better strategies for talking to their older patients about sexuality.

Bill Taverner, who co-authored the book “Older, Wiser, Sexually Smarter,” presented the program, which examined personal and cultural attitudes regarding sexuality and aging. He suggested best practices for discussing sexual health in one-on-one settings and how to open up lines of communications about sexual health.

“As people live longer lives, it is even more important to recognize that healthy sexuality is an integral part of holistic health,” said VUSN Instructor Carrie Plummer, M.S.N., who helped organize the conference in conjunction with Kayce Matthews, Planned Parenthood of Middle and East Tennessee’s director of education.

The workshop focused on opening up lines of communication. Sessions addressed the use of humor in helping patients feel more comfortable and forthcoming about discussing their sexual health. Taverner delved into what he called “sexual scripts,” the personal, historic and social outlook that shapes a person's view of sexuality.

He stressed the importance of health care providers understanding their own sexual scripts so they can better help their patients understand theirs. He also talked about the changing role of sex throughout stages of life from young adult, parent and even grandparent.

“Sex education tends to be geared to young people, but it really should be a lifelong learning opportunity,” said Taverner. “People really need to think about their own sexual learning so they can address their own values and baggage and do a better job of respecting sexuality in older adults.”

Messages for health care providers included suggestions such as asking about sex and intimacy during routine exams (as older adults may be reluctant to bring up the topic, but will discuss if asked), avoiding making assumptions about sexual activity or orientation and recognizing the growing rates of sexually transmitted disease among older adults, including HIV.

The event was also sponsored by VUMC Nursing Education and Development and the Vanderbilt-Meharry Consortium Geriatric Education Center.