Sex and Senility
Melinda Henneberger takes readers' questions on romance among dementia patients.
Melinda Henneberger: Yes, and in a broader sense it's indicative of our culture's lack of respect, period. In Europe, where it's still so much more common for older family members to live with their grown children, this situation may not occur in quite this way in part because they're not living in the senior equivalent of a college dorm. But in this country we're also peculiar of pretending that romance is mostly for kids, which is certainly not the case elsewhere in the world. I guess we have begun to believe that the people in those airbrushed ads actually exist somewhere.
Concord, N.H.: That was just heart-breaking. Bob's son also seemed to be carrying some residual disgust regarding his father being married three times. You said he didn't mean to cause his father any pain, but he was incredibly unkind—not just in taking him away from Dorothy, but also in the way he chose to express his reservations. They say a lot about him and his relationship with his father. I guess it's true—be careful how you treat your children, because someday they will be taking care of you.
Melinda Henneberger: Yes, his comment about his father's marital history did suggest he had some issues with Dad. I am just trying not to judge him too harshly because I never got his perspective on the thing, and there are always at least two sides...
Arlington, Va.: I faced a similar issue with my mother as her mind failed. With her, it was masturbation. Part of the problem is that children have a very hard time dealing with the sexuality of parents at all. In this case I had to remove myself from a primary caregiver position and let someone with more emotional distance deal with it.
Melinda Henneberger: Thanks for this comment; I can't imagine that anyone would have found a situation like the one you had with your mom comfortable, but the more we get these issues out in the open—so that they don't come as such a surprise—the better. And it sounds like your decision was a very loving and wise one.
Rosslyn, Va.: It is a shame that Bob's son could not accept his father's relationship. A couple lived in the assisted-living facility where my aunt lived for nine years (and passed away last year), on different floors. The wife had Alzheimer's but the husband did not. It was so touching to see them together. He was so solicitous of her. Eventually it became too expensive to keep them both there, and he had to go with his family. It was very sad. I don't think she really knew at that point, but it's something I still think about. All of use should be treated with dignity and respect for our feelings. It's too bad Bob's son didn't see it that way.
Melinda Henneberger: Several members of my family have suffered from that awful disease, including a first cousin who was diagnosed in her 40s. But both my cousin and her mother had husbands who came to see them every day, talked to them, read to them, loved them—and in my cousin's case, fattened her up on ice cream!—and there is no way that they did not feel that love.
Washington: I can't help interpreting the actions of these elderly people as I would children. I know it is irrational and disrespectful, but my visceral reaction is the same as if I found two 11-year-olds "playing doctor."
Melinda Henneberger: You're certainly not alone in this, and at least are aware of it! It's no wonder that's such a common reaction, given that our PR culture sends so many disrespectful messages about old people. As our population ages, though, surely these will no longer be tolerated. And sorry, here I go, getting all political, but how absurd, for example, that the electoral problems in Florida in 2000 and again in 2006 were at least initially written off as just a bunch of oldsters too muddled to cast their ballots properly.
Melinda Henneberger writes columns for Commonweal, the Catholic opinion journal. She was previously a reporter for the New York Times and contributed to Newsweek. She is the author of If They Only Listened to Us: What Women Voters Want Politicians to Hear.