International Psychogeriatrics

Review Article

Sexuality in institutionalized elderly persons: a systematic review of argument-based ethics literature

Lieslot Mahieua1 c1 and Chris Gastmansa1

a1 Centre for Biomedical Ethics and Law, Faculty of Medicine, Catholic University of Leuven, Leuven, Belgium


Background: Admission to a nursing home might challenge the way in which individuals experience their own sexuality, but it does not automatically diminish their need and desire for sexual fulfillment. Despite the fact that sexuality proves to be an intrinsic part of human existence, the sexual expression of geriatric residents remains a sensitive subject for many caregivers and family members. It evokes a variety of ethical issues and concerns, especially when dementia patients are involved. The overall objective of this review was to examine the ethical arguments and concepts about the debate on sexuality within a nursing home environment.

Methods: We conducted a systematic search for argument-based ethics literature focusing on sexuality in institutionalized elderly people. Twenty-five appropriate studies were identified.

Results: A thematic analysis of the included literature led us to distinguish two major groups of ethical arguments: (i) principles and (ii) care. Ethics arguments on sexuality in institutionalized elderly are particularly guided by the principle of respect for autonomy and the concomitant notion of informed consent. Arguments related to care were also apparent within the research literature although they received considerably less attention than the arguments related to the principles of respect for autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence and justice.

Conclusions: The lack of clarity in the conceptualization of the arguments referred to in the research literature indicates that there is a pressing need for a better defined, more fundamental philosophical-ethical analysis of the values at stake.

(Received April 05 2011)

(Revised May 27 2011)

(Revised June 20 2011)

(Accepted June 20 2011)

(Online publication August 24 2011)


c1 Correspondence should be addressed to: Lieslot Mahieu, Research Associate, Centre for Biomedical Ethics and Law, Faculty of Medicine, Catholic University of Leuven, Kapucijnenvoer 35/3, B-3000 Leuven, Belgium. Phone: +32-16-33-29-23; Fax: +32-16-33-69-52. Email: