The Heart Wants What the Heart Wants

In early spring, I attended a conference on Alzheimer’s and dementia.   One of the presentations was on sexuality.
Quite frankly, just as most of us cringe at the thought of our parents having sex, it is even more of the “eeewww” reaction when we think about individuals with Alzheimer’s or a dementia having sex. However, in psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of basic human needs, sex is listed with the basic foundational needs along with food and air. I am sure some of you would disagree with that placement, but that’s where it is!

The workshop was quite interesting.  The son of a woman with Alzheimer’s, who sat near me ,was visibly agitated and seemed quite disgusted at the thought that his mother not only had the right, but should be accommodated if she decided to have a romance in her long-term care facility. He even asked if he had the right, as her power of attorney, to request that this not be allowed. The speaker said that while his mother definitely had the right, most long-term care facilities would defer to the person who paid the bill. If he paid the bill, he probably could manage to have any such romance stopped.  On the other hand, one attendee who worked in a long-term care facility shared that her facility had what they called ” The Boom-Boom Room” that residents could use for romantic liaisons.  The crowd chuckled at that one.  Someone asked the name and specific location of her facility!

So, now let’s transition to Pine Ridge Manor, an assisted living residence. Mr Alvarez is the new resident. He happens to be in the room right across from my mother. Almost immediately, Mr. Alvarez “takes up” with a lady down the hall, named Martha. Martha is a rather “plain ” woman. She wears the same blue sweat suit daily. Occasionally she wears a purple sweat suit but the blue one is clearly her favorite. She does not wear earrings or any jewelry, as do many of the other ladies at Pine Ridge. She never has on make up and her hair is always a bit messy.  There are other women who are more well dressed, coiffed and simply more attractive but Mr. Alvarez has his sights set on Martha. And so the gossip and hoopla begins!

First, the place is buzzing with news – Mr Alvarez and Martha are “doing it”. Then the whispered update that Mr. Alvarez sprained his wrist falling out of his twin sized bed while “doing it” with Martha. The next news is that Martha’s daughter is livid with this new romance. She insists her mother has dementia and should NOT be doing this.

I have the pleasure of running in to Mr. Alvarez’s daughter in the hall one day. She is very distraught and wants to talk. Could her father be charged with some sort of crime for having sex with someone who has dementia? Why couldn’t he have picked one of the more attractive ladies at the facility? And her dad has asked her to get him a bigger bed. What should she do? I sort of hem and haw and BS my way out of the conversation and make my way down the hall.

A couple of days later, I over hear that staff are now locking Mr. Alvarez’ door from the outside so that Martha cannot get in his room at night. Ooops. This is a “no-no” in terms of the state regulations, so that tactic has to stop.

In recent weeks, the gossip has died down. It is common to see Martha coming out of Mr. Alvarez’s room. Sometimes you will see her pushing his wheelchair out on to the patio where they sit companionably. And often you can hear Martha giggling at something her ” beau” has said. They seem quite happy.

There was much discussion several years ago, when the news was shared that former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s husband had a romance with another woman in the facility where he resided. Justice O’Connor had been quite open about her husband’s Alzheimer’s and for many years brought him with her to her office at the Supreme Court. Eventually his disease progressed to the point that placement in long-term care was necessary. When interviewed by a reporter for the Sunday New York Times, she stated that she was “totally glad” that her husband had someone to hold hands with and to share loving feelings. She was able to understand that in this disease, often the past is simply lost, and the person with dementia may live completely in the moment. This new-found love had nothing to do with her, or the relationship she had shared with her husband. This was about his current need, given his current circumstances.

The good news is that neither Mr. Alvarez nor Martha have a current spouse. They are quite “free” to develop a romance. But the rest of us might have to adjust. We might have to accept, or over look, or turn our heads, or realize that sometimes the fact of the matter is, the heart wants what the heart wants.

I’m just relieved he didn’t choose my mother.


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