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