Nursing home sex: Facilities protect the right to romance

Expressions of love and sex are common among elderly residents in nursing homes. - Courtesy photo
Expressions of love and sex are common among elderly residents in nursing homes.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

One nursing home's staff closed the drapes and door whenever a younger dementia patient, free of inhibitions, disrobed and was ready to party.

An Alzheimer's patient introduced her boyfriend to the husband who visited daily. Another man thought his new girlfriend was really his wife.

One lady walked down the hall, holding hands with two different men, kissing whoever passed by.

Regardless of a nursing home resident's age or mental capacity, they need touch and affection. Residents of all U.S. facilities have a right to romance — as long as it's consensual.

"We try to keep residents as independent as possible," said Suzanne Garside, executive director of Emeritus at Federal Way. Residents find love and get remarried at the assisted living facility. Caregivers have also walked in on couples by accident, but unless safety is compromised, they let the fireworks continue.

When it comes to intimacy, Garside said, "it's as private and open as they want."

The Journal of Medical Ethics, a British academic publication, stirred up a media buzz in recent weeks. Elderly nursing home residents, an editorial said, were denied consensual sex for safety reasons.

That's not the case in the U.S., where assisted living facilities are heavily regulated. Caregivers for dementia patients go through state-mandated training, which covers situations including sex and intimacy.

Dementia describes a serious loss in mental function, from memory to language to judgment. This impairment leads to unpredictable and inappropriate sexual expressions, such as unwanted advances or masturbation in public.

"We make sure it's safe," said Leslie Kone, a physical therapist for 35 years at multiple care facilities. She has never seen a nursing home resident restrained from consensual contact. "Patients are free to do what they want. It's their right."

Care facilities often notify families of residents who form new relationships. The topic of sex creates an awkward conversation.

"It's difficult to talk with people about their parents," said Sunya  Grantham, executive director of Foundation House in Federal Way. "The common phrase is, 'my mom would never do that,' or 'my dad would never do that.'"

In the end, a care facility's obligation is to the residents, Grantham said.

"What the family wants is one thing, and what the resident wants is another," she said. "They are human beings, regardless of their age."

Related notes

• According to the Alzheimer's Association, one in eight older Americans has the disease — the sixth-leading cause of death in the nation.

• Sex has health benefits for adults of all ages in any home. Sex reduces stress and boosts immunity. Sex is also great exercise, requiring a physical exertion equivalent to walking up one or two flights of stairs.


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