Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Leave 'Em Alone Already

Apparently there's a whole new concept that needs to be added to the living will, a "right to romance." Excerpts (out of order, I've made them more chronological) from this article in Slate:
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." . . . .

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 dad's 82-year-old girlfriend performing oral sex on his 95-year-old father 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.

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.

Now, I realize that children do have a vested interest in their parents' relationships, even at this stage of the game. Bringing in a new person creates emotional complications - What do you tell the grandkids? What if health problems are exacerbated by sexual activity? Can they really consent with dementia? What if they decide to give away precious family heirlooms that mean nothing to them anymore because they can't remember the significance?

I also realize that dementia complicates things. For example, a rigidly religious person may become uninhibited as the disease robs their mind of complex thinking processes. At that point, do you go with what the person's expressed values prior to the disease, or post-onset?

Despite the complications and the fear, I still believe in a healthy dose of "do unto others." I mean, which of us would like to be subjected to this?

I am speaking from some experience here. After my mother died, my father had typed up the obituary I wrote to send to the newspaper. A notoriously bad speller, he asked me to look at the email before it was sent. I scanned it, made a few changes, and hit "send." Then, of course, the email closed and his inbox popped up. To reveal dozens of "winks" and emails from other women off a dating website. I was rather horrified. Particularly as my divorce had just gone through after catching my ex cheating on me through one of those online sites. I went numb, and didn't say anything to anyone. I realized he was completely fearful of living without mom, and this was just some kind of viceral reaction - he was always rather impulsive. But it felt like a betrayal just the same.

Within a few weeks, it emerged that he'd already gotten a girlfriend or two culled out from the crowd. My siblings were scandalized. As is normal for new relationships, he spent most of his time with dating and neglected his hurting kids and (worse) grandkids. This was particularly painful because he'd already received the news that he himself had less than six months to live (though he beat the odds to live almost three more years). He started forcing one particular girlfriend into family gatherings will all the grace of a bull in a china shop, particularly given the enormous amount of grief still present for my mom. He borrowed money from his kids - who were hurting financially - to go on dates. I fielded calls from siblings talking about everything from hurt feelings to inheritance issues, with an underlying current of resentment that their notoriously conservative father was spending the night out. I brokered a compromise: don't bring dates around the grandkids, because they're a little too young to deal with this and their father is afraid they'll get confused and forget grandma. Otherwise, do what you like. But the resentment simmered, just the same.

In the end, nothing of my mother's was given away. That was the one thing I would have had a problem with. As for the rest: Meh. He was an adult, albiet a childish one. He'd been given little time to live and was grasping for something to make him feel young and normal again. It was good for him, so the rest of us should butt out. Because it was hurtful to us, we can choose to limit our contact with these women, but we can't try to impose this upon him.

How much more true when the person in question is incarcerated in the depressing environment of a nursing home, watching their own lives slowly, painfully, wash away? I know the fear, and the anxiety. Get over it. C'mon. Let them have fun. You'd want the same.

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