How does dementia affect sex and intimacy?

When a person is living with dementia, their sexual behaviour, needs and desires may change. As their partner, yours may too. Your sex life may have changed,  and you might need advice on how to cope with this, as well as how to feel better. Talking about sex and intimacy can help. 

Can we still enjoy sex and intimacy after a diagnosis of dementia?

Many partners still enjoy sex and intimacy in their relationship. How you express affection for each other may change. Some people discover new and different ways of sharing closeness, comfort and intimacy after a diagnosis of dementia.

Relationships can be intimate in different ways. What you and your partner consider as ‘sex’ may change and become either more or less important to you. You may find new ways of being physically intimate over time. If your partner has dementia, it can be helpful to keep an open mind about what ‘sex’ and ‘intimacy’ mean for you both. 

Why has our sex life changed?

A person with dementia experiences physical and emotional changes because of their condition. These changes can affect how they feel about sex and intimate relationships.

Some types of dementia, especially frontotemporal dementia (FTD), can affect a person’s inhibitions, their sexual behaviour and their attitude towards sex. A person with this type of dementia may, for example, express their sexual interest more directly or openly. FTD may also impair a person’s ability to feel empathy, which can affect both partner’s sense of intimacy.

Some people find a diagnosis of dementia reassuring as it explains the changes that they have been experiencing in their sexual or intimate relationships.

How to cope with changes to your sex life caused by dementia

In any relationship, problems can arise when one person expresses more or less interest in having sex than the other. This is a situation experienced by many people in long-term relationships – even when dementia is not involved. If this does happen, try to remember that this is not uncommon, and look for realistic, practical solutions. Finding someone to talk to can also be helpful.

You or your partner may become frustrated if their sexual needs are not met, especially if one of you is more interested in sex than the other. This is normal, and there are things you can do to make it easier.

What can we do to feel better?

There are a number of ways to relieve pent-up sexual tension – for example, masturbation. Exercise and other energetic activities may also help reduce physical tension.

Sexual intimacy can meet needs for closeness, touch, belonging, security, acceptance and warmth, or the need to feel special to another person. If some of these other needs can be met in other ways, a person’s desire for sex may be reduced. For example, close non-sexual friendships can help to meet some of the need for emotional intimacy.

Therapies, such as massage and reflexology, which involve physical contact, can be very relaxing. If you and your partner are finding that you are unable to have sex or be intimate, it could be useful to look at other activities which could help reduce any frustration you both may be feeling.

Talking about dementia, sex and intimacy 

For many people living with dementia, physical intimacy continues to be a source of comfort, support and pleasure for many years. However, some people may experience sexual difficulties. There is no single ‘normal’ way of dealing with these.

It can be a difficult subject to discuss, but you might find it helpful to talk to someone you trust, such as a good friend or family member. You could also raise the issue in a carers’ support group. To hear how others in a similar situation have dealt with their experiences, visit our online community, Talking Point. You can also share your experiences, and ask for advice on sex and intimacy from other people affected by dementia.

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