The untold link between dementia and sexual health 9



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A UK study has found that women over 60 are bearing the brunt of dementia. On the one hand, women are now twice as likely to get dementia as breast cancer. On the other, women are more than two-and-a-half times more likely than men to be carers of people with dementia. According to the report, women do not choose or plan to take on the role of carer, and find the experience highly stressful. What’s more, female carers often suffer job losses in the process. Such impacts can cause depression in some of these women, which itself is a risk factor for dementia.

“Dementia can affect women either directly or indirectly, as patients or in the role as carers” says Dr Helene Roberts, a Melbourne-based neurologist. “For women who become carers, their lives can change dramatically. Adjusting to a multitude of lifestyle changes and dealing with often challenging behaviours can cause significant physical and emotional stress”.

In addition, changes in sexual behaviours can occur in dementia. Some people with dementia, for instance, can experience a loss in sexual inhibitions, which may result in inappropriate sexual behaviours such as public undressing. Other changes in sexual behaviour can include an increase in sexual demands, or in contrast, a complete loss of interest in sexual contact.

“For people with dementia and their partners, changes in sexual behaviour and intimate relationships can be the cause of additional stress and uncertainty,” says Roberts.

Unfortunately, these impacts are rarely discussed, perhaps because for most people, sex is regarded as a private matter.

“I think the impact that dementia has upon sexual health, both for the patient and carer, is very underreported,” says Roberts.

In her work with dementia patients, Roberts can recall only a handful of cases where the topic of sexual health was voluntarily mentioned.

“One example that comes to mind was a patient and his wife living with dementia in the community. His wife came to me once and said she couldn’t cope. They had had 65 years in a loving marriage but of late her husband had become increasingly demanding of sex. She was suffering from osteoarthritis and osteoporosis and was physically and emotionally exhausted, but did not know how to refuse. She was becoming increasingly fearful”.

The opposite of wanting too much sex, or more sex than prior to the dementia, is not wanting any at all. This can leave carers feeling rejected and grieving the loss of the relationship they once had. “There are a range of responses, and all can affect the relationship and sexual health of the individuals,” says Roberts.

Roberts urges carers to contact their health care provider if they feel unsafe, or are experiencing any form of stress, including stress that is sexual-health related.

“The first step is to inform someone. Sexual health issues affect us throughout life and this should be acknowledged and addressed”.

There are services available that provide counselling and support for people with dementia and carers.

For further information visit Alzheimer’s Australia or call the National Dementia Helpline on 1800 100 500.


Do you know anyone who has dementia who has had an increase or decrease in sexual desire? What help have they had? Tell us below.

Sandi Scaunich

Sandi Scaunich is a Health Promotion Officer specialising in sexual and reproductive health. Sandi works at Women’s Health in the South East which is the regional women’s health service for the Southern Metropolitan Region of Melbourne. She has three tertiary qualifications, including a Master of Social Health (Medical Anthropology) from the University of Melbourne. Sandi formally worked in the community, local and state government health sectors, and has also taught health and sociology subjects at Melbourne, Swinburne and Deakin Universities. Sandi has three young children – two boys and a girl – who keep her very busy outside of work! And she admits to being addicted to scrabble...

  1. The grief loved ones go through when a dear one has Dementia is terrible because it is so prolonged watching the loss over years.

  2. My Mum had dementia. It’s like you lose the person you knew, then when they die, you lose them again.

    1 REPLY
    • Wendy, when my mum died after 8 years of Alzheimer’s, I didn’t cry over her death at that point. But the 8 years were full of tears, often angry tears, tears of exhaustion and confusion as little by little we lost her. So when the end came I was relieved, in a way. No more of the indignities she had suffered over those 8 years. But her sad face will live with me for ever. Was she sad? Or just emotion-less? Who would ever know. The long goodbye Alzheimer’s is called, with good reason.

  3. My sister has Alzheimer’s she was 48y when contracted it and is now 70y. We were losing her bit by bit. Now,no shadow of who she was she is nowhere to be found.She was much more intelligent than me by far had a professional job. Naughty sense of humour. figure like Sophia Loren. I was in awe of her as she was seven years older than me and I wanted all her glamour. By the time I grew up that style of dress was gone. I miss her.

  4. As my father was dying of cancer,my mum was diagnosed with alzheimers…I gave up my work to care for them both.My Dad passed away and Mum continued to stay in her own home for a year,with my help,but then she repeatedly put her life in danger, and I realised I could no longer cope.Reluctantly I placed her into a great,caring nursing home,where she receives great care.Although she is physically still here,I feel the grief of losing her,as she is no longer the warm,loving mother I knew.The experience is so much harder than losing my dear dad,as she just slowly,slowly slips away.When she was placed into care,I was 60,a and discovered I am ineligible for the aged pension until I turn 66 ! Despite applying for countless jobs,I have lost my self confidence,as no employer wants a 60 year old….adds insult to injury that I am now known as a dole bludgeon, being forced to survive on newstart.However,I would do it all again…we only have 2 parents,and I am their only daughter.

  5. Ity Sexual behaviour/relationships are one of the no go subjects when we talk about the brain diseases of which dementia is a symptom. It is always the elephant sitting squarely in the centre of the room. Having a quick glance over the responses no one mentions sex. It is not only the wives who can have issues with sexually inappropriate behaviour and language it is often the daughters who are caring for elderly parents who have to deal with the issues it raises. Many of us find it difficult to listen to explicit language at any time; when it comes from our elderly parent even more so. How does a daughter cope with being groped by her Dad? we continually reminded to tell ourselves that it is the disease not the person. But that advice runs thin at times. It is even harder when in a moment of clarity the person who has the disease recognizes the inappropriate behaviour and that does happen sometimes. We need more research, enabling early and accurate diagnosis, more education and support for caregivers, better treatment regimes that are not solely focused on chemical support; an understanding that dementia a part of a series of complex terminal neurological diseases.

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