She was 82. He was 95. They had dementia. They fell in love. And then they started having sex.

Snapshots of life at home.
June 10 2008 1:14 PM

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.

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

Bob's family was horrified at the idea that his relationship with Dorothy might have become sexual. At his age, they wouldn't have thought it possible. But when Bob's son walked in and saw his 95-year-old father in bed with his 82-year-old girlfriend last December, incredulity turned into full-blown panic. "I didn't know where this was going to end," said the manager of the assisted-living facility where Bob and Dorothy lived. "It was pretty volatile."

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.

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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?

"We were in uncharted territory," the facility manager said—and there's a reason for that. Even the More magazine-reading demographic that thinks midlife is forever (and is deeply sorry to see James Naughton doing Cialis ads) seems to believe that while sex isn't only for the young, exceptions are only for the exfoliated. We're squeamish about the sex lives of the elderly—and even more so when those elderly are senile and are our parents. But as the baby boom generation ages, there are going to be many more Dorothys and Bobs—who may no longer quite recall the Summer of Love but are unlikely to accept parietal rules in the nursing home. Gerontologists highly recommend sex for the elderly because it improves mood and even overall physical function, but the legal issues are enormously complicated, as Daniel Engber explored in his 2007 article "Naughty Nursing Homes": Can someone with dementia give informed consent? How do caregivers balance safety and privacy concerns? When families object to a demented person being sexually active, are nursing homes responsible for chaperoning?  This one botched love affair shows the incredible intensity and human cost of an issue that, as Dorothy's doctor says, we can't afford to go on ignoring.

Dorothy's daughter, who contacted me, said that, in a lucid moment, her mother asked her to publicize her predicament. "We're all going to get old, if we're lucky," said the daughter, who is a lawyer. And if we get lucky when we're old, then we need to have drawn up a sexual power of attorney before it's too late. Who controls the intimate lives of people with dementia? Unless specific provision has been made, their families do. And for Dorothy, which is her middle name, and Bob, which isn't his real name at all, that quickly became a problem.

"Who do you love?" Dorothy asked me, right after her daughter introduced us. She'd married her first—and only other—sweetheart, a grade-school classmate she'd grown up with in Boston and waited for while he flew daylight bombing raids over Germany during World War II. Together they had four children, built a business, and traveled all over the world, right up until she lost him to a heart attack 16 years ago. But she never mentions him now and doesn't like it when anyone else does, either, because how could she not remember her own husband? Her daughter visits every evening, and because Dorothy loves kids, her daughter pays the housekeeper to bring hers over every afternoon, "and she thinks they're her grandchildren, and it makes her happy."