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.
Finally, Bob's family decided to move him and insisted that neither he nor Dorothy be told in advance. No one in either family was there the morning Bob's nurse hustled him out the door. Later, the manager called his son and asked if there was any way Dorothy might come and visit just briefly, to say goodbye. The son thought about it for a few days and then said no, his father was already settled into his new home and was not thinking about her at all anymore. The lawyers told Dorothy's family that there was no way they could make the legal case that Bob's rights were being violated by his family, because you couldn't put people with dementia on the witness stand.
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."
Though Dorothy might or might not remember what happened, "there's a sadness in her" that wasn't there before, the manager said. Bob "gave her back something she had long lost—to think she's pretty, to care about her step and her stride." She eats in her room now rather than in the dining room where she shared meals with Bob. And she no longer plays the piano. A new couple in the facility has gotten together in the last few weeks. The manager called their families in right away and was relieved to see that they were happy for their parents, and the families have been taking them on outings together. As a result of the whole experience, the manager, who is 50, recently had a different version of "the talk" with her 25-year-old daughter, instructing her never, ever to let such a thing happen to her or her husband: "I hope I get another shot at it when I'm 90 years old."
Dorothy's doctor also took their experience personally. "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. And let's be honest, because this man was very elderly, I got intrigued; my respects to the gentleman." His patient was happier than he could ever remember; she was playing the piano again, and even her memory had improved.
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.
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.