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Redefining Intimacy in Parkinson’s Disease

Wife with her arms wrapped around her husband sitting on the couch

Research shows that touch boosts physical and mental wellness — it can lower heart rate, decrease depression and anxiety, strengthen the immune system and relieve pain. For couples, touch communicates affection and acceptance, which plays an important role in supporting intimacy.

When people talk about intimacy in relationships, they commonly focus on sex; however, there are many types of intimacy, including emotional, intellectual, spiritual and physical intimacy. These are often interconnected and build upon one another. Physical intimacy — both sexual and non-sexual touch — helps promote connection and overall wellbeing.

Like everything else in a relationship, physical intimacy evolves as people change and new challenges arise. With Parkinson’s disease (PD), changing relationship roles, self-esteem issues, stress, medication side effects and PD symptoms — including movement issues, mood changes, urinary problems and fatigue — can influence sexual health and physical intimacy. Care partners also experience stress, depression, fatigue and other health issues over time that can impact physical connection.

Our new Mental Wellness Series is dedicated to mental health conversations. This article complements our virtual round-table conversation, Redefining Intimacy in Parkinson's Disease & Beyond, which features certified sex therapist Gila Bronner, MPH. The below tips can help you find new ways to build intimacy with your partner while navigating PD-related challenges:

1. Build Connection with Your Partner

Life’s pressures and the day-to-day stress of living with a chronic illness like PD can cause couples to drift apart. Look for ways to stay connected and continue growing together. Share your thoughts and feelings. Spend quality time together. Take a walk, make a date for coffee, read to each other, watch a funny movie or take dance lessons — anything that unites you as friends and reduces stress.

Discussing sex or physical intimacy issues can be uncomfortable and frustrating. Many couples need help navigating these conversations. Don’t be afraid to seek out counseling or join a support group, either together or separately. Call the Parkinson’s Foundation Helpline at 1-800-4PD-INFO (1-800-473-4636) to find a counselor or a support group.

2. Enjoy the Moment

Even just a minute of physical touch can boost “happiness” hormones, such as oxytocin and serotonin, and reduce cortisol and noradrenaline and other “stress” hormones that can cause anxiety and restlessness. Having expectations that physical touch will lead to a specific outcome can eliminate the pleasure of the experience, create anxiety or even lead to fear.

Rather than planning for a particular result, aim for connection and pleasure. Put on a few songs, take time to exchange gentle touch with your partner, such as caressing the face, arms or shoulders, and enjoy the experience — without any demands or expectations.

3. Broaden Your Horizons

It has often been said that comparison is the thief of joy. Defining physical intimacy in terms of what it means to others, what we have been told it should mean to us or by what it has meant to us in the past can diminish our own experiences.

If you and your partner are experiencing mismatched sexual desire, talk about it. Is it due to stress, fatigue, hormones, PD or another health issue? Sexual desire and activities change over the years for a variety of reasons.

Staying connected through touch is vital to a healthy, loving relationship. Try to meet each other where you are. Of course, if you are both on the same page, sexual activity doesn’t need to stop just because it can’t be the same as it used to be. You might need to adapt your techniques, explore modifications or even plan out those moments that go beyond sensual touch.

4. Discuss Intimacy with Your Healthcare Team

Many PD symptoms affect sexual health in men and women, as well as the ability to touch, be close, communicate or even concentrate. Some of these issues can be treated, but it can be difficult to know who to turn to for advice.

For people with Parkinson’s and care partners, talking to a medical professional they feel comfortable with is often the first step, suggests Gila Bronner. Your neurologist, primary care doctor or another healthcare professional can offer advice, treatment or refer you to the appropriate specialist, such as a urologist, sex therapist or counselor.

5. Be Aware of Medication Side Effects

Dopamine agonist medications sometimes used to treat PD symptoms can lead to impulse control and hypersexuality issues. People experiencing these issues are at risk of putting themselves or others in unsafe or unhealthy situations. If you notice these side effects, let the neurologist know right away, as these medications may need to be reduced or discontinued.

Other medications, such as those for high blood pressure or antidepressants, can also impact sexual function. Discuss any concerns over medication side effects or your sexual health with your doctor, who can recommend medication adjustments or appropriate therapies.

Helpful Resources

The Parkinson’s Foundation is here for you. Explore more of our mental wellness resources now:

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