GUIPAVAS — In the Jacques Brel retirement home in Brittany’s town of Guipavas, Marcelle Plougoum looks at Jean-Noël Michel tenderly. They first met in a medical center for senior citizens, and have loved each other for three years in this modern residential community surrounded by gardens. “We stay together all the time,” Marcelle explains. “Being apart would drive us mad!”

The couple doesn’t sleep in the same bed, but can be together often thanks to a door connecting their rooms. They spend a lot of time in Marcelle’s room, tastefully decorated with photographs. But the one of his beloved Jean-Noël is carefully put away. Though the other residents know about their love affair, they do not dare flaunt it. “We don't show that we are involved, because people get jealous. We kiss only in the bedroom,” the old woman explains.

Relationships and sexuality remain taboo in retirement homes. After all, privacy is hard to come by in a place where the elderly need care and medical treatment daily.

So the French agency Elorn, which manages three retirement homes, has developed a special training seminar for caregivers to familiarize them with sexual and intimacy issues among the elderly. This initiative has been encouraged by French minister for the elderly Michèle Delaunay, and Elorn is also offering staff training in its two other retirement homes. 

These sessions allow caregivers, residents and families to meet and talk. The first meeting on July 14 drew 400 people and gathered sexologists, university professors and psychologists to discuss the subject. Corinne, one of the caregivers at the Ker Laouena retirement home, finds it very useful. “It did me a lot of good. We felt a little bit uncomfortable seeing old people kissing. It used to be a bit shocking, but it’s not anymore.”

Elorn director Eric Seguin is one of the project organizers. “The medical staff should be aware that sexual desire remains present for people even up to age 80 or 90,” he explains.

Valérie Daniel, a nurse at Ker Laouna who was present during the first training session, says that the residents often feel embarrassed about their sexuality. “Some of them have had platonic love lives.” 

Let’s talk sleeping arrangements

That bashfulness is why many residents don’t want to see drastic changes. Seguin says he would be willing to put two single mattresses together in the same room, giving couples the option to sleep either in double beds or in connecting rooms.

“It's always better to have larger rooms and connecting bedrooms,” resident Yvonne Bergot says cheerfully. She moved two years ago into Ker Louena on the seaside to be with her husband, who died in January.

Like Marcelle and Jean-Noël, the couple spent most of their time together, in either one of their two bedrooms. Not at night, though. “Sleep in the same bed? I never even thought of it,” Yvonne confides.

In the Jacques Brel residence, Marcelle and Jean-Noël don’t necessarily want to share a bed either, especially since they require different amounts of sleep. “The couples can also feel awkward regarding their children’s way of thinking,” says Seguin. “That's why one of the main purposes of the training is to help residents to stop feeling guilty.” 

Seguin believes the training will continue to be necessary as time goes on, if only for the staff. Resident profiles will no doubt change as children of the 1960s and homosexual couples arrive, and though “these people won't be shy about their sentimental and sexual lives, the staff’s mentalities need to evolve,” he says.

Another issue is life expectancy. Though right now women represent 90% of the residents at the three homes, men are expected to be as numerous as women in the years to come. And that means more coupling.