Sexual activity and sexual health are important indicators of older adults’ overall health, yet primary-care physicians don’t often bring up sex, said Maggie L. Syme, PhD, of the VA Boston Healthcare System at an APA 2010 Annual Convention session. Older adults want physicians to talk about sexual health, but don’t know how to broach the subject at check-ups.

Psychologists can help facilitate those important conversations by pushing for medical teams to add a sexual-health question at intake to give older adults an opening. For example, physicians might say: “Sexual health is very important to many of my patients. How satisfied are you with your sex life and intimate relationships?”

Psychologists can also educate other members of the medical team about older adult sexuality by conducting staff training.

“In nursing homes, I’ve seen staff act like junior high school students” when a romance develops between patients, said Larry Lemos, a nurse at Long Beach Healthcare System in Long Beach, Calif. Psychologists can help turn that culture around by educating staff about the ways sexuality can affect patient care and how to treat these relationships in a sensitive way, Syme said. This is particularly important in nursing homes, which aren’t conducive to sexual intimacy.

By helping older patients to address their sexual concerns, medical teams “will be amazed,” said Syme, “that their patients will be functioning more happily.”

—S. Martin