Slate's recent piece on the forbidden love of a couple suffering from dementia has hit a nerve. The pair (82 and 95, respectively) met at an assisted-living facility and embarked on a relationship that quickly grew passionately physical. When 95-year-old Bob's son walked in on his father receiving oral sex from his girlfriend, Dorothy, he pitched a fit, complained to the home's management - who separated them - and then summarily moved his father to another facility, citing concerns for Bob's health - after which Dorothy went into steep decline.
The story raises a number of thorny issues: Do administrators and guardians have the right to deny sex lives to patients? It is not as if these are children who could be psychologically harmed by it; one assumes that these are adults who have enjoyed normal sexual relationships throughout their lives. What constitutes "consent"? While both parties' faculties may have been compromised, they were also on an equal footing. Perhaps most importantly, the relationship seemed to bring the couple tremendous happiness; who was it harming? Although Bob's son is unquestionably cast as the villain of the piece, he was within his rights as his father's legal guardian to try to safeguard his father's well-being as he saw fit; would it not be equally high-handed for a court or administrator to override his judgment, or perhaps his values?
The article suggests that Bob's son's reaction was as much "ick factor" at the thought (and sight) of his nonogenarian father's active sex life as reasoned concern. It is certainly true that as a society we're conditioned to think of old-folks' sex as automatically risible and somewhat grotesque. When it came out that Sandra Day O'Connor's husband, suffering from dementia, had acquired a "girlfriend" in his home, no one's reaction was revulsion, and Mrs. O'Connor's attitude - that the friendship made him happy and was no reflection on her marriage to the man he had been -seemed humane and reasonable. Had the story involved the sordid sexual element, would people have been as sympathetic?
Stripped of societal context and even the emotional complexities of a "real" relationship, there is a basic quality to the sex in this case - as both emotional and physical need - that is somewhat jarring. We've made such a cult of sexiness, eroticism, procreation and sexual politics, that this kind of innocent sex between two people with dementia is perhaps the only kind left unexamined. While the story is a tragic one, it's making us think about things we don't want to - never a bad thing - and maybe showing that attraction can run deeper than we know.
Related: Justice O'Connor's Husband Finds New Love [CBS News]