Planning for old age—have you thought about it? Are you thinking about the quality of life you want when you’re in your later years? And what about sex? I think about it occasionally. A couple of news stories have made me think I need to have a conversation with my sons about the life I lead now and the life I want as long as I’m on the planet.
There was the story of the man who had sex with his wife, in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s—he was charged with sexual abuse for “having sex with his wife, incapacitated by dementia”. (source)
And, the sad story of three adults, two women and a man, who were having an intimate relationship when the adult children of the two women banned them from seeing the man, shutting down the relationship. The three adults, ranging in age from their 80s to mid-90s, lived in different nursing homes and regularly saw each other. I’m working with the photographer who documented the story to get more information about the ‘love triangle’ and will be writing about it soon. And while we won’t ever know all the details leading to the decision, it saddens me to think that these people were denied that human connection because of aging and health related issues. Or maybe because of the adult children’s discomfort with their parents’ sexuality?
Aging with dignity, respect, and autonomy isn’t guaranteed, unfortunately. Not if we have to give up some control over how we live. It is our responsibility to make our wishes clear and we should be doing that now, before issues arise. Sexuality is an individual and private thing. We make our own decisions during most of our lives, but when we talk about nursing homes and possible incapacitation we have to factor in our caregivers’ opinions and biases as well as other complications that arise as we lose control over our daily living.
We’re beginning to see some changes, but for the most part, the administrators and other professionals involved in long-term care aren’t adequately prepared to deal with aging sexuality. There has been a rise in the transmission of sexually transmitted infections among the older population, catching nursing homes unprepared. It’s just one indicator of the need to shift attitudes and frame guidelines for comprehensive care.
As I see it, we need to add sexuality to the aging discussion. If we’re caring for our parents it might be something we want to discuss. What happens if one of them is incapacitated in some way? Does that mean their desire for sex, even unexpressed, is no longer acceptable or possible? What about affection and touch? Do we deprive someone of that because we might be uncomfortable or the nursing facility doesn’t know how to handle it?
We also need to talk to our own children or our future caregivers about our needs and expectations. This one might be tricky. I’ve talked to a few people and gotten some feedback, occasionally vehement, about the need to protect their parents from predators. That’s a valid concern, but who decides that a loving person is a predator? There is sexual abuse and there is sexual intimacy. There are people seeking companionship and there are people looking for aging adults to manipulate.
My two adult sons are aware of my work and my relationship status, often to their discomfort. But I’m positive the topic of me and sex at age 85 has never crossed their minds. It falls to me to communicate clearly that I expect to remain sexually active for as long as I can. They need to hear that and be prepared to support my wishes. It’s really that simple.
- If the guy down the hall is giving me the eye and I want to play with him—that’s my business. It may rest on the facility to assure that all patients who are sexually active are being tested for STIs, while letting me do what I want. Long-term care facilities must start developing policies on sex and sexuality.
- If you’re in a relationship, or married, but living apart, do you want visitation rights, in a private space?
- If you’re married and one of you develops a form of dementia will you still want intimate times with him or her? Does your facility allow that? Will the family be supportive?
These probably aren’t the first things that pop to mind as you plan for your later years, but they are important. Make sure your children or other caregivers understand the kind of life you lead now and the quality of life you have a right to expect as you age. The right to human connection, in whatever form we desire it, is vital to living a fulfilling life.