I never saw the Sarah Polley film "Away From Her," but I was reminded of it when I read this story by Melinda Henneberger in Slate about a couple who fell in love in a nursing home. In the movie, a woman suffering from Alzheimer's moves into a nursing home and begins cheating on her husband with a fellow patient. No one's quite sure if the affair is the result of her disease -- she only intermittently remembers who her husband is -- or an overdue act of revenge for the husband's past indiscretions, which her still sharp long-term memory allows her to recall vividly. Is it her own desire, or her deteriorating mind?
In an earlier Slate article about sex in nursing homes, Daniel Engber noted that Alzheimer's can certainly call consent into question, but "most of us aren't expecting our elderly mothers or grandmothers to be having sex in the first place -- so we're far more likely to complain if she's getting too much action rather than too little." Seeing as gerontologists say sex among the elderly is both common and beneficial, patients' kids might just be too quick to ascribe nursing-home nooky to dementia rather than normal sexual desire. We'd prefer to see sex as something older adults need to be protected from, not something they'd seek out on their own. Otherwise, you know, ew.
But the story of "Bob," 95, and "Dorothy," 82, two widowed residents in an assisted-living facility who fell in love last year, certainly makes me want to check that "ew" reflex. Everyone could see the relationship, which many at first thought was just about hand-holding and nuzzling -- stuff that gets filed under "cute" instead of "ew" -- made them both physically and mentally healthier. According to the facility manager, Henneberger writes, "Whenever Bob caught sight of Dorothy, he lit up 'like a young stud seeing his lady for the first time.' Even at 95, he'd pop out of his chair and straighten his clothes when she walked into the room ... Dorothy went from wearing the same ratty yellow dress all the time to appearing for breakfast every morning in a different outfit, accessorized with pearls and hair combs."
Then Bob's son walked in on Dorothy performing oral sex on his father. Oops! The son, horrified ("She had her mouth on my dad's penis!"), insisted that they be separated, ostensibly because neither party could definitively consent to sex. The facility obliged; several employees were just as flipped out as the son was upon learning that the couple was having sex. But after Dorothy's daughter started talking about a lawsuit to keep their parents' relationship intact, Bob's son had his father moved to a different home, without even allowing him to say goodbye to the woman he called his wife. Dorothy then became so sick and depressed, her doctor says he believes she would have died if the Alzheimer's hadn't begun mercifully erasing her memories of Bob.
Given how much the relationship seemed to improve both parties' health, one has to wonder if those facility employees who agreed to keep them separated really had their patients' best interests at heart -- or if they just didn't want to have to think about a little old lady going down on her boyfriend. Geriatric sexuality is considered yucky in our culture to begin with, and geriatric female sexuality, as Engberg's quote above suggests, even more so. (Bob was also once caught "pleasuring" Dorothy under a blanket in a common room -- oops again! -- so it was apparently a two-way street.)
Says Dorothy's doctor, "Can you imagine as a clinician, treating a woman who's finally found happiness and then suddenly she's not eating because she couldn't see her loved one? This was a 21st-century 'Romeo and Juliet.'" Or a real-life "Away From Her," at least.