On Aging and The Right to Sex

I just found this article via Amber Rhea, and it broke my heart.  It’s about an 82-year-old woman and 95-year-old man (called “Dorothy” and “Bob”) who met in an assisted living facility and became romantically involved.  Both had dementia.  And everyone thought that their romance was all very cute and lovely . . . until the two of them started having sex.

Because both Bob and Dorothy suffer from dementia, the son assumed that his father didn’t fully understand what was going on. And his sputtering cell phone call reporting the scene he’d happened upon would have been funny, the manager said, if the consequences hadn’t been so serious. “He was going, ‘She had her mouth on my dad’s penis! And it’s not even clean!’ ” Bob’s son became determined to keep the two apart and asked the facility’s staff to ensure that they were never left alone together.

After that, Dorothy stopped eating. She lost 21 pounds, was treated for depression, and was hospitalized for dehydration. When Bob was finally moved out of the facility in January, she sat in the window for weeks waiting for him. She doesn’t do that anymore, though: “Her Alzheimer’s is protecting her at this point,” says her doctor, who thinks the loss might have killed her if its memory hadn’t faded so mercifully fast.

But should someone have protected the couple’s right to privacy—their right to have a sex life?

For me, the answer seems like an obvious “yes.”  It was believed by Dorothy’s family and the caretakers at the assisted living facility that the two of them were very much in love.  And even more than that, I feel that everyone has a right to sex, albeit one that stops at another person’s right to not have sex.  I don’t feel that’s something that ends with old age or with disability.

A question asked, and I think a valid one, is about consent.  Can someone with dementia consent to sex?  I think that’s probably a case-by-case question.  But the fact is that we’re not dealing with sexual activity between a person with dementia and a person with no mental disability.  We’re dealing with two elderly people who both lived with dementia and who were very, very fond of each other.  I can’t see anyone giving a shit if Bob and Dorothy had been together and married for many years prior to the onsent of their dementia.  In fact, if they had been married for many years, Bob had the same dementia and Dorothy had none, I actually imagine that you’d find few people willing to argue against the two of them initiating sex together under the same circumstances, with Bob openly willing and eager.  That is, so long as they didn’t have to hear about it.

As any of my regular readers will know, consent issues are very important to me and not something I will compromise on.  But there seems to be little argument on behalf of anyone other than Bob’s son, including the doctors at the facility, that the ability to consent was ever an issue.  I think that there are rare times when consent is used as an excuse — much fewer and farther between than the opposite, I might add — to oppose sexual relations between certain people.  It’s why you’ll see some pretty ridiculous “Romeo and Juliet” statutory rape laws.  There is nothing innately causing a 16-year-old to be unable to consent to sex with an 18-year-old.  Some people are just very uncomfortable with teens having sex, and that’s how those laws are often used/abused — by parents who are very upset that their daughter (it’s almost always a daughter) was consensually having sex at that age.  I think that’s what’s happening here.  Because if there’s anything that makes our society more squeamish than teenage sex, it’s elderly sex and disabled sex.  The article speculates on this topic a lot, and I have to agree that it most likely played a large if not primary role.

Then there’s just, you know, human selfishness.

Dorothy’s son-in-law, who is a doctor, suspects Bob’s son of fearing for his inheritance. Bob had repeatedly proposed for all to hear and called Dorothy his wife, but his son called her something else—a “gold digger”—and refused to even discuss her family’s offer to sign a prenup. According to Dorothy’s daughter, Bob’s son told her, “My father has outlived three wives, including the one he married in his 80s, and your mother is just one of many.” But surely Bob’s safety was a true concern, too, and maybe his son had religious or moral qualms? “I don’t think so,” the manager said. “I don’t think he meant his dad any harm, but he couldn’t see what his dad needed. … He wanted his dad to have a relationship but on his terms: You can sit together at meals, but you can’t have what really makes a relationship, and be careful how much you kiss and don’t retire to a private place to do what all of us do.”


What do you think?  I recommend reading the full article.  Obviously we weren’t there, but given the scenario laid out before us, does Bob’s son have any moral ground to stand on?  I’m personally seeing little.  I really like the way that the article ends:

And though the doctor never laid eyes on Bob, in general, he said, the fear of sex causing heart attacks is wildly overblown: “If you’ve made it to age 95, I’m sorry, but having sex is not going to kill you—it’s going to prolong your life. It was as if someone had removed the sheath that was covering [Dorothy], and she got to live for a while.” But after the trauma of losing Bob, Dorothy’s doctor came close to losing his patient, he said, adding that most people her age would not have survived the simultaneous resulting insults of depression, malnutrition, and dehydration. “We can’t afford the luxury of treating people like this. … But we don’t want to know what our parents do in bed.”

Then the daughter interjected that Bob’s son certainly didn’t want to see them having oral sex, and the doctor proved his own point. Holding a hand up to stop her from saying any more, he told her, “I didn’t need to know that.” But maybe the rest of us do.

Sex is a reality, and everyone has different views on it.  But the fact is that it’s very important in the lives of many people.  I don’t particularly want to think about my family members having sex either, and wouldn’t exactly be thrilled about walking in on it — that’s why we knock — but they have a right to it and my personal comfort has no bearing on that right.  There are certainly cases where severe dementia would cause an inability to consent, or would allow a person to commit a rape based on fraud (i.e. the person with dementia believes the partner to be someone else, like a previous lover).  It doesn’t seem to have been the case in this situation.  I’m one of those people to whom sex is very important.  I can’t even begin to imagine having that taken from me, at any age.  And so I certainly can’t imagine a way in which I could support taking the right to consensual sexual contact from another person.

Image credit: peacenik1, made available under a Creative Commons Attribution License

0 thoughts on “On Aging and The Right to Sex

  1. Renee

    I think you make a valid point about our discomfort with seniors and sex. My grandmother who is in her 80’s has a new boyfriend and they are as sweet as pie. Though my family is disturbed by this I am thrilled for her. Sex is an important part of life and deny someone that because it makes us squeamish is limiting to those that we love. Bottom line is, people need to stay out of the bedrooms of others.

  2. J.

    Powerful article and blog entry. I agree almost completely, including on the consent part. Sex – well, and romance/love – add so much to the human experience (when they’re right) that I find it tragic that these folks with so little time left to live are being denied this fulfillment and joy.

  3. jimjay

    Well I agree – I also think it’s a very complex problem because whilst there are relationships which are “problem free” there are also many that are not.

    I seen couples broken up because you’ve got both learning disabilities (which is the field where I used to work) added onto what appears to be an abusive or unhealthy relationship.

    The ethical question becomes do we have a right to end an abusive relationship? I actually think we don’t, but if you’re meant to be giving support to someone you need to be able to give them adivise and help that they might not always want as well as facilitate them in doing what they want to – what’s clear is the lines sometimes are quite blurred.

  4. annajcook

    Really good post, Cara. One of my uncles is a massage therapist and works in a hospital with elderly patients. He often talks about how touch-starved the people he works with get, unless their caregivers are intentional about providing it. There is growing recognition for the importance of both physical touch and emotional relationships for people from birth to death, regardless of age, but we don’t often–as a culture–feel comfortable thinking of consensual sexuality as an approporiate way to get both of these things when it comes to the elderly (a marginalized group to which we will all eventually belong!).

  5. Jenna

    This story reminded me of another one. I used to work in the medical field and one of the nurses I worked with told me a story about her mother-in-law and we actually got into an argument over it. Her mother-in-law had a stroke in her late 50’s (the son and nurse got married just out of high school, hurray for unintended pregnancies!) and could no longer stay on her own or take care of herself. The son decided to have her go to a nursing home so they went to her house and started packing up her things. The son sat down in her recliner and it began to vibrate and hum loudly. He picked up the cushion and found a large vibrator, one of the kind that plug in. When they asked the Woman about it she just kept saying, “it’s evanrude. I want evanrude.”
    They refused to take it to her at the nursing home. The nurse said that She made the decision not to take it to her mother-in-law, that it was “nasty,” and then she tried to couch it in vaguely religious terms.
    She got mad at me because I told her they should have just given her the vibrator, it wouldn’t have hurt anything, and it would have given her the only pleasure she gets.
    Obviously the point was that she and the son were so uncomfortable with thinking that the mother was a sexual being with desires and needs that they denied her a truly harmless way to achieve pleasure. The nurse kept saying, “you just don’t understand, what if it had been your mother?!” Yes, saving face when you visit the nursing home is more important than another person’s pleasure.

  6. Cara Post author

    Thanks for sharing, Jenna. You know, the “what if it was your mother?” question, to me, is a really bad but also really telling one. If it was my mother? Well, I’d be slightly squicked out, I’m sure, but then I’d get over it, stop acting like a childish asshole. Loving my mother and wanting her to be as happy and comfortable as possible, I’d bring her the damn vibrator.

    Really, the whole thing confounds me. Have your little “ew” moment, people, if you need one. Then be decent enough to stop asking “what if it was your mother?” and start asking “what if it was me?”

  7. Anna

    I think part of the reaction is that “ick” factor of one’s parents having sex – cuz EW! If my parents had sex, then they were, at some point, sexual, just like me, and if that’s true, one day I will be just like them! Aaaaaa! Fear of growing old.

    People totally have this asexual idea of people with disabilities. No one believes that my husband was disabled when I fell in love with him, or that we could have an active and wonderful sex life – they’re much more inclined to believe I’m using him for his money (ha!) and that he’s incapable of leaving for fear of being alone.

    When I was living away, I encouraged him to get massage therapy and the like, not because I thought it would do anything at all for his disability, but for that touch aspect that annajcook brought up. (Heck when I was living away, I went out for massage occasionally for that touch aspect, and people aren’t afraid to casually touch me the way they are someone with a disability.)

  8. Jen

    Dude, your parents had sex. That’s why they’re your parents. Get over it.

    I think their story was beautiful and romantic. It breaks my heart that he had to go and ruin something that could have given them so much joy in their last days.

  9. Pingback: Being Amber Rhea » Blog Archive » links for 2008-06-28

  10. Renee

    Really, the whole thing confounds me. Have your little “ew” moment, people, if you need one. Then be decent enough to stop asking “what if it was your mother?” and start asking “what if it was me?”

    You know when you put it like that maybe more people would be inclined to take a less repressive approach to the whole issue. It just sucks that we have to turn a situation around and place ourselves in the middle of it to recognize an injustice. We should naturally want the best for our loved ones because that is the right thing to do.

  11. secondhandsally

    I think that part of the problem that people have with their elderly parents having sex stems from a larger problem people have with seeing their parents as real people, separate from their role as “Dad” or “Mom.” It’s a self-centered viewpoint that I think creates a lot of tension between parents and children. Parents often fail to see their children as “real people” and instead of think of them as “my child,” which they think gives them a kind of ownership over their child’s sexuality. I think the same is true when children become their parent’s caretakers.

    This is such an interesting post; thank you for writing it.

  12. Daomadan

    This reminds me of the articles that have touched upon the growing number of STDs in some nursing homes/care facilities because many of the adults in them are…shock!…having sex! (I think they even broke up an orgy once.)

    Most people have already expressed my feelings on the matter (Cara, Renee) and personally I hope that if I live to be 60 or 70 or 80 or beyond that I can still be a sexual person, whether with a partner or with myself.

  13. eruvande

    My husband’s grandparents lived in a nursing home together. He was deaf, and she had had two strokes and couldn’t speak, but they both seemed to have their mental faculties basically intact. A few years ago, they were caught trying to have sex. Shocked, the home moved them into separate beds, even though grandpa pointed out that they’d been married for seventy years and should be allowed to do what they wanted.

    I met them only once, but they were very sweet. Grandma in particular was very touch-starved, and the whole time I was there, she insisted that I sit next to her, and hugged on me and held my hand and just smiled with tears in her eyes. Broke my heart.

    I think another big part of the problem is our tendency to see elderly couples in love as “soooo cute,” and of course, cute things don’t have sex. These people have lived so long and have so little to bring them pleasure anymore; why can’t we let them do what they want?

  14. Joyce Evans

    Iam 74 and a widow for six years. Because my husband had prostate resection 30 years ago I learned to take care of myself. There have been no other partners.

    I am happy to see that times are slowly changing and although I do miss the “touch, smell and taste” of a man that I care for, what I can do for myself gives me pleasure.

    It is, after, our right.

  15. Pingback: Above the Age of Consent??? « The Other Side of Madness

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