An Affair To Remember
She was 82. He was 95. They had dementia. They fell in love. And then they started having sex.
Melinda Henneberger chatted online with readers about this article. Read the transcript.
But even showing me around her well-appointed, little apartment in the nice-smelling assisted-living facility was an exercise in frustration for Dorothy: She joked and covered, but she might as well have been guiding me through Isabella Stewart Gardner's house, because all around were tokens from her past that have lost their meaning for her. There were tiny busts of Bach and Brahms, a collection of miniature porcelain pianos, Japanese woodcuts, and some Thomas Hart Benton lithographs she picked up for a few dollars in the '40s. "These are all my favorites," she said, pointing to shelves of novels by the Brontes and books about Leonardo da Vinci and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. But her expression said that she couldn't recall why she liked these volumes best, and what I think she wanted me to know is that she once was a person who could have told me. When her daughter mentioned Bob's name—Bob, who was led away in January, shouting, "What's going on? Where are you taking me?" right in front of her—it wasn't clear how much she remembered: "He came and he went, and there's nothing more to say."
So it was left to her daughter, her doctor, and the woman who runs the assisted-living facility to explain how this grown woman, who lived through the Depression and survived breast cancer, managed a home and mourned a mate, wound up being treated like a child. "Come back anytime," Dorothy told me sweetly.
Downstairs, in her bright, tidy office, I met the woman who runs the facility—one of the nicest I've seen, with tea service in the lobby and white tablecloths in a dining room that's dressed up like a restaurant. In 30 years of taking care of the elderly, she's seen plenty of couples, but none as "inspiring" or heartbreaking as Dorothy and Bob. Which is why she keeps a photo of the two of them on her desk. In the picture, Dorothy is sitting at the piano in the lobby, where she used to play and he used to sing along—with gusto, usually warbling, "I dream of Jeanie with the light brown hair," no matter what tune she was playing. She is all dolled up, wearing a jangly red bracelet and gold lamé shoes, and they are holding hands and beaming in a way that makes it impossible not to see the 18-year-olds inside them.
Before Dorothy came along, the manager said, Bob was really kind of a player and had all the women vying to sit with him on the porch. But with Dorothy, she said, "it was love." One day, the staff noticed that they were sitting together, then before long they were taking all their meals together, and over a matter of weeks, it became constant. 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. She would sit, and then he would sit. And both of them began taking far greater pride in their appearance; 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.
Soon the relationship became sexual. At first, Dorothy's daughter and the facility manager doubted Dorothy's vivid accounts of having intercourse with Bob. But aides noticed that Bob became visibly aroused when he kissed Dorothy good night—and saw that he didn't want to leave her at her door anymore, either. (Note to James Naughton: Bob did not need what you are selling.) His overnight nurse was an obstacle to sleepovers, but the couple started spending time alone in their apartments during the day. When Bob's son became aware of these trysts, he tried to put a stop to them—in the manager's view because the son felt that old people "should be old and rock in the chair." When I called Bob's son and told him I was writing about the situation without using any names, he passed on the opportunity to explain his perspective. "I don't choose to discuss anything that involves my father," he said, and he put the phone down.
But according to the facility manager, the son was convinced that Dorothy was the aggressor in the relationship, and he worried that her advances might be hard on his father's weak heart. He wasn't the only one troubled by the physical relationship. The private-duty nurse who had been tending Bob also had strong feelings about the matter, said the manager: "At first, she thought it was cute they were together, but when it became sexual, she lost her senses" for religious reasons and asked staff members to help keep the two of them apart.
Employees wound up choosing sides—as did other residents, including some women who were apparently jealous of Dorothy's romance. And because the couple now had to sneak around to be together—for instance, cutting out when they were supposed to be in church—their intimacy became more and more open and problematic. At one point, the manager had to make Bob stop "pleasuring her" right in the lobby, where Dorothy sat with a pillow placed strategically over her lap. In all of her years of working with elderly people, the manager said, this was not only her worst professional experience but was the only one that left her feeling she had failed her patients. She had a particularly hard time staying neutral and detached, she said, because she kept thinking that "if that was my mom or dad, I'd be grateful they'd found somebody to spend the rest of their lives with."
One day when Dorothy's daughter arrived to visit, she found Bob sitting in the lobby, surrounded by a wheelchair brigade of dozing people who had been posted around him by the private-duty nurse to block Dorothy from approaching him. That's when Dorothy's daughter got the state involved and started throwing around the word lawsuit, which only made things worse, the manager said. "Once she started talking legal, that pushed things over the edge." The state did send someone in to try to mediate the situation—but then the mediator was diagnosed with cancer and died just five weeks later. Though the mediator's replacement tried to pick up where he had left off, she was never able to establish a rapport with Bob's son.
Melinda Henneberger is a Slate contributor and the author of If They Only Listened to Us: What Women Voters Want Politicians To Hear.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.