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Gerontology Students: Prepared to Affirm Older Adults’ Sexuality?

By Emily Ike, SIECUS Program Research Intern


Heidi H. Ewen and Pamela S. Brown, “Students Enrolled in an Introductory Gerontology Course: Their Knowledge of and Attitudes toward Sexual Expression in Older Adults.” American Journal of Sexuality Education (June 2012) 


The researchers examined college students’ knowledge and attitudes about older adult sexuality. Questionnaires were completed by 156 undergraduate students enrolled in an introductory social gerontology course during the 2009-2010 academic year. The purpose of the study was to learn about the “preparedness of the future workforce in responding to and facilitating healthy sexual expression among older adults,” particularly those who planned to work with older adult populations.[1] Data was collected with two instruments: the Aging Sexuality Knowledge and Attitudes Scale (ASKAS), plus a general demographics survey. 

The researchers had several hypotheses: 1) students with prior abstinence education would be less knowledgeable and hold less accepting attitudes about aging and sexuality; 2) students with more liberal political views would hold more accepting attitudes about aging and sexuality; 3) students’ level of factual knowledge about aging and sexuality would be independent of their political leanings and 4) students with career plans including working with older adults would be more knowledgeable about and hold more liberal attitudes on aging and sexuality.

Key Findings:

  • Students in general were not knowledgeable about age-related changes in reproductive physiology and sexual behaviors.
  • Students’ current knowledge about aging and sexuality was independent of their prior sexuality education.
  • The students with the greatest knowledge about older adults’ sexuality were those considering careers in aging and those who had more prior contact with older populations.
  • Students with liberal political views had more accepting attitudes towards older adult sexuality and aging.


Given the rapidly increasing elderly population in the United States, it is critical that the future work force of health and service providers has accurate knowledge and accepting attitudes towards older adult sexuality. Students enrolled in a gerontology course can be expected to have only partial knowledge – after all, the point of attending a college course is to learn new information – but it is reasonable to expect such students to show at least a predisposition to acknowledge and affirm older people as sexual beings.

The authors of this study found that, in this sample of gerontology students, prior contact with older people may have been the most important factor in determining whether a student was well-informed about older people’s sexuality. The authors call for additional research on the education and training of this work force, including “focus groups or survey measures on sexuality educators’ curriculum, knowledge, and perceived importance of aging and sexuality as a content area.”[2] They propose this additional research to help determine whether those pursuing careers with older adults are truly prepared to address sexuality issues effectively and competently within this population.

Previous studies have found that health professionals view sexual expression among residents at a nursing facility as “behavior problems.”[3] For those in training to become social workers, health care providers, allied health professionals, educators, long-term care administrators, gero-psychologists, or other professionals working with older adults, it is imperative that they understand the social and physiological changes that happen with aging and sexuality. For example, older adults living with HIV must have competent caregivers capable of distinguishing between the general signs of routine aging and the specific symptoms of HIV-related health problems.

Professional sexuality educators can use the results of this study to make the case for more comprehensive sexuality education at the pre-college and college levels, especially as it applies to sexual issues across the entire lifespan. Furthermore, many employees of agencies that serve older adults have little or no college education – the results of this study will challenge sexuality educators and program planners to find ways to provide in-service training for those in vocational programs (e.g. training to be home health aides) as well as for those already employed in senior centers, extended care facilities, residences for older adults, and similar venues.

Policy makers, funders, and program developers continue to treat sexuality education as almost exclusively a concern of adolescence, despite evidence of need among older adults who are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population. In order to prepare our nation’s future work force of service providers to older adults, common taboos and misconceptions about and aging sexuality must be confronted through more comprehensive college curricula, job training, and research.

[1] Ewen HH, Brown PS (2012). Students enrolled in an introductory gerontology course: their knowledge of and attitudes toward sexual expression in older adults. American Journal of Sexuality Education 7(2): 110-121, DOI: 10.1080/15546128.2012.680859

[2] Ibid.

[3] Steinke EE (1997). Sexuality in aging: implications for nursing facility staff. Journal of Continuing Education in Nursing(28)2: 59-63. Available at: