What happens when seniors who can’t recognize their own kids try to navigate the hazards of physical intimacy with one another? Zosia Bielski looks at the challenges for elderly people, nursing homes and families
By Zosia Bielski
When Karen Best abruptly lost her communications job at the age of 57, her family found it strange: she’d been a workaholic all her life. For a while, they assumed she was depressed, as she whiled away the hours watching cat videos online in her housecoat.
Within the year, Ms. Best was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s and frontotemporal dementia. By the time her family placed her in long-term care in Welland, Ont., Ms. Best had stopped calling her grandchildren by their names and lost most of her language. Staff would ask if she wanted a blueberry or a chocolate-chip muffin; she couldn’t reply.
Which made the phone call from the nursing home one month into Ms. Best’s stay all the more alarming: caregivers were anxious about her and a male resident. Staff needed her daughter, Cassandra Trach, to come in right away. “She had been found with no pants on, and he had no pants on, in his room,” said Ms. Trach, a 33-year-old account executive in the Niagara region. “This was something I was wholly unprepared for.”
Ms. Best and the elderly man would walk together, holding hands, and she would also seek him out for closer contact, according to staff. Like her, he was able-bodied but suffering from dementia. Ms. Best and her new companion were also both married – in Ms. Best’s case, for three decades – but had seemingly forgotten their spouses.
Every time nursing-home employees discovered the couple undressed together, they’d call Ms. Trach and her father, who jointly possess power of attorney for Ms. Best. “It felt like they wanted us to decide, do we let this relationship go and happen, or do we try to redirect?” Ms. Trach said. “It’s so grey. What do I do?”
For Ms. Trach, it was a painful predicament. Could her mother – an advanced dementia patient who sometimes couldn’t communicate what she wanted for breakfast – meaningfully consent to a new sexual relationship? Dementia had rendered most of her thoughts inscrutable, her desires opaque. Who could tell if she wanted or understood this?
Amid ever-widening cultural conversations about sexual consent, dementia remains uncharted territory. As Canadians live longer, more are moving into long-term care with advancing dementia disorders. It’s a growing population with complex needs, not least of all in their intimate lives.
In the close-quarters environment of nursing homes, these people’s sexuality poses difficult ethical dilemmas for staff and for families. Those who care for uniquely vulnerable dementia patients walk a fine tightrope. They have to protect their residents from sexual abuse while respecting their needs for human connection – and a private life.
This is proving challenging for Canadian caregivers. There is no unified strategy on sexuality and dementia in this country. No cognitive test exists to determine, once and for all, whether a person with Alzheimer’s can consent to sex or not.
Instead, nursing-home employees are often left on their own to decide whether their residents with dementia can consent to intimacy safely – even as residents’ awareness shifts from moment to moment, their speech recedes and their thoughts become difficult to access.
When poorly trained staffers are left to untangle such ethical knots, they can bring their own value judgments to bear. A prevailing squeamishness about elder sex can provoke alarmist reactions. The result is great inconsistency around dementia patients’ sexual lives in long-term care across Canada, a point that troubles Alzheimer’s advocates.
“It’s all over the map,” said Judith Wahl, a Toronto legal consultant who fielded complaints about homes for three decades as executive director of the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly and now educates long-term care staff across the country about consent and dementia.
In interviews, more than a dozen sources detailed questionable attitudes on the ground.
They described personal support workers seemingly making up policy on the fly, with some barring any kind of touch between residents, and others not paying close enough attention to their most defenceless patients and those who might exploit them.
“Homes should put their minds to looking at how they manage this,” Ms. Wahl said. “It’s really hard to do this well.”
Consent and capacity
Despite an ever-widening social reckoning around sexual consent, dementia presents a new frontier.
Just 28 per cent of Canadians fully understand what consent entails, according to research conducted earlier this year by The Canadian Women’s Foundation. Consent becomes decidedly more complicated when one or both people involved have dementia.
Just as a person’s sexual consent can quickly swing from “yes” to “no” during an intimate encounter, so can dementia patients’ abilities to recognize and navigate what’s happening around them.
“Consent is so challenging,” said Mary Schulz, director of education at the Alzheimer Society of Canada. “It’s a moving target. Our instruments for assessing that are quite blunt.”
The starting point is Canada’s sexual-consent law, which is no different for people living with dementia than it is for anybody else. The Criminal Code is clear: Consent can be spoken or unspoken, but it needs to be affirmative and happen in the moment; passivity cannot be construed as a “yes,” and nobody can consent (or dissent) on anyone else’s behalf, not even with power of attorney.
“With medical treatment, if you’re not competent, [the decision goes] to somebody else on the hierarchy – often a family member,” said Jane Meadus, a lawyer with the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly. “With sex, you can’t do that.”
Although the law is clear, it’s not always helpful within the context of nursing homes. Who determines “capacity to consent to sex” is not readily established in Canada. Often, it falls to personal-support workers to resolve the most critical questions: Do their residents with dementia understand what they’re doing, including the consequences? Can they pull back at any time?
With little consent training, staff aren’t always equipped to answer with full certainty.
Deepening the dilemma is the contradictory nature of the nursing home. These places are supposed to serve as patients’ homes, where they’d normally enjoy a private life. At the same time, these are highly monitored environments where every risk is mitigated. Caregivers have to prioritize safety and dignity simultaneously.
“They’re in a bind, because we’re not really good at telling them how to do that,” Ms. Meadus said.
At long-term care homes in most provinces, residents now have a “bill of rights” that allows them to receive visitors of their choice in private. Ontario and Prince Edward Island spell out residents’ rights to form relationships in care, even letting friendly residents share rooms. “Residents are treated with respect and dignity at all times, including during intimacy,” reads Nova Scotia’s patient bill of rights, the only document to use the word directly.
These philosophies represent a stark evolution from the oppressive old-age institutions of the past. But, even as residents’ rights are increasingly protected on paper, what happens on the ground doesn’t necessarily follow.
“It gets extremely tricky,” Ms. Meadus said. “You get some homes that have tried in the past to say, ‘Nobody can have sex, that’s it.’ And you get other homes where it’s laissez-faire: ‘As long as it feels good, they can do it.’ It is a very difficult balance that people are trying at, but we haven’t got it right yet.”
Advocates voiced concern about caregivers overstepping. They described religious staff members taking moral exception to LGBTQ patients and to residents having extramarital liaisons. They spoke of homes that have operated as “no sex zones,” where caregivers overzealous about their duty to protect patients have dissuaded them from engaging in all touch with one another, right down to holding hands. Staffers are afraid that such simple, comforting gestures might spiral into sexual abuse and liability.
They’ve got some cause for concern. Long-term care is one of the most highly regulated sectors in Canadian health care. Homes track everything and must report sexual abuse to their provincial ministries of health and long-term care, and to police. Ministries will cite homes if staff members fail to protect their residents from harm. Families of residents can also sue a home for damages; these cases are overwhelmingly settled out of court.
“The default position for long-term care staff – not necessarily rightly, but quite understandably – is in case of doubt, nobody touches, nobody hold hands, nobody is allowed to have sex,” said Ms. Schulz of the Alzheimer Society of Canada. “They go to that extreme position because they’re at a loss. But that is denying a person their human experience, which is just not on.”
On the other end of the spectrum, employees at more progressive homes don’t always consider the sexual risks as closely as they should, some legal advocates say. Ms. Wahl said she’s dealt with too many complaints about employees looking the other away, assuming the affection between two residents is mutual when it might not be. “Just because somebody’s old,” she said, “doesn’t mean that you just ignore the fact they could be sexually assaulted.”
Ms. Wahl rattles off what she’s seen. Some staffers will decide that a resident is seeking out sex because he or she walked into another resident’s room – this even as clinicians know that dementia patients often wander without aim. Other caregivers mistakenly assume that sex between a resident and visiting spouse is automatically consensual. This disregards Canada’s 1983 marital-rape law, which makes clear that even those married for decades need to get agreement from each other before having sex.
Ms. Wahl is most perturbed by family members infantilizing their elders. She said she’s seen many adult sons and daughters objecting to parents forming relationships in care. Sometimes, Ms. Wahl said, staffers hand over the sexual decision-making to these family members, assuming it’s the right thing to do because they have power of attorney.
“You can’t have substitute consent to sex,” Ms. Wahl cautioned, pointing to Canada’s sexual-assault laws.
Adult children can be the strictest gatekeepers. Many will try to stymie their parents’ late-in-life
relationships, lawyers and Alzheimer’s advocates say.
Children are rightly protective, but many are also simply recoiling from their parents’ sex lives.
“Unnerving” was the word Ms. Trach used as she fielded call after call about her mother being found undressed again with her new boyfriend at the nursing home in Welland. “What am I supposed to do with this information?” Ms. Trach asked, exasperated.
Even though staff reported that her mother encouraged the intimate relations, Ms. Trach was distressed. She wondered about her mom’s motivations for pursuing the man.
“Is she consenting to it because, like a teenage girl, she’s seeking approval? … Is she doing this because she’s lonely?” Ms. Trach asked. “How can you tell with someone with dementia?”
She got few answers. Balancing her mother’s need for affection with her safety was “agonizing.” In the end, the family did not interfere with the relationship, although they asked that the pair be monitored as closely as possible by staff.
“If this is something that gives them joy and happiness,” Ms. Trach said, “maybe we have to put our own discomfort aside.”
Along with the other adult children of parents with dementia who spoke with The Globe and Mail, Ms. Trach decided to speak out on behalf of her mother, who is now largely non-verbal, to spread awareness about the sensitive issues of consent and connection in long-term care homes. Ms. Trach said she went public so that nursing homes “are awesome by the time we have to live in them.”
Today, in old-age institutions and outside of them, deeply ageist aversion persists toward elderly adults and sex – never mind those beset by Alzheimer’s.
“It can seem kind of, almost obscene, in some people’s minds, to be thinking about sex when you’re talking about someone who’s perhaps cognitively impaired, elderly or physically frail,” Ms Schulz said. “And it can seem somehow irrelevant: ‘How can you even be thinking about this when we’re dealing with massive issues of cognitive decline?’”
The Alzheimer Society of Canada is in the midst of overhauling its resources for families and other caregivers on the issue of sexuality and dementia. It’s enlisted the help of Lori Schindel Martin, an outspoken associate professor at Ryerson University’s Daphne Cockwell School of Nursing.
At Canada’s first sexual-consent conference, held in 2016 at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., Prof. Schindel Martin asked the next generation of nurses to consider what human touch means for residents’ well-being.
“Research tells us,” Prof. Schindel Martin told the audience, “that older people will have an increased quality of life, enhanced self-esteem and will heal from their depression because they connected with someone on a level that involves their skin.”
Prof. Schindel Martin took the opportunity to call out what she views as pervasive censorship of elderly people’s sexuality.
She laced her keynote with eye-opening composite cases from two decades spent on the front lines as a gerontology nurse working with dementia patients. There was the man who adorned his walls with framed Playboy centrefolds; nurses protested and refused to go into his room. Another woman would lift her skirt over her shoulders and proposition male residents, or “sailors” as she called them. And there was the husband who visited his wife every day from lunch till 7 p.m.; the housekeeper was shocked to walk in on him one day with his head between his wife’s legs.
They were visceral vignettes meant to illustrate the very real sexuality of older adults, as well as our profound unease around it. Speaking from her small, turquoise-blue office at Ryerson last April, Prof. Schindel Martin argued that ageism permeates everything about this issue: we see elderly people as asexual beings taking afternoon tea together, not pinning nude centrefolds to their walls.
The academic says we need a rethink. Pointing to nursing homes’ risk assessments, cognitive questionnaires and panicked phone calls to family, Prof. Schindel Martin wondered if anyone would ever subject randy first-year college students to any of this heavy-handedness.
“One’s humanity and capacity for relationships become examined very deeply in ways that we don’t do with other people,” Prof. Schindel Martin said. “What we’re able to control are older people … to remove them from each other and create rules.” (At Trent, she likened it to “killing a mosquito with a hammer.”)
Prof. Schindel Martin insisted that most of what she’s witnessed in clinical practice involved people seeking each other out for company, belonging and warmth. She wants stronger training so caregivers can better discern harmless courtship from more problematic sexual behaviour.
“We need to step back and rethink what could happen in our worst imaginings,” Prof. Schindel Martin said. “We don’t even have good prevalence incidence data about how often these things happen.”
Canada does not collect comprehensive data on sexual abuse perpetrated by residents against other residents in long-term care. A cross-country scan revealed many provinces lump together reports of all kinds of abuses – physical, verbal, financial and sexual. Most provinces also fail to differentiate between different types of abusers, counting exploitative residents, visitors and staff members all together. Provinces that did break out these statistics reported “founded investigations” and not all reports, meaning tallies appeared conspicuously low. (For example, between 2012 and 2017, Nova Scotia reported just 18 proven investigations of non-consensual sexual activity between residents in 135 long-term-care homes.)
What we do know is that Canada’s dementia population is swelling. The number of Canadians over 65 with dementia increased 83 per cent between 2002 and 2013, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, which found that some 76,000 new cases are diagnosed every year in this country. Today, more than half a million Canadians are living with dementia, according to the Alzheimer Society of Canada. By 2031, that number will nearly double.
As baby boomers become caregivers to aging parents and round the corner into old age themselves, they want long-term-care options that actually feel like home, not the cold, controlled institutions of generations past. They want their rights recognized, including the freedom to enjoy intimate relationships in some semblance of privacy, the way you would at home.
Experts believe the way forward lies within a broader push for “person-centred” health care that focuses on knowing patients individually: if you don’t bother trying to know them or their needs, how can you help them? Person-centred care doesn’t solve all the difficult, sometimes inscrutable questions facing nursing-home staff about consent, capacity and dementia. It’s by no means a magic bullet, but experts believe it is, at the very least, a more empathetic approach that doesn’t stigmatize ailing, elderly people looking for human connection.
At Sherbrooke Community Centre, a long-term-care facility that houses 263 people in Saskatoon, chief executive Suellen Beatty said caregivers need to be “really good detectives,” who decipher the unmet needs of their residents – not who admonish them. Married residents trying to take up with others in the nursing home are often seeking love and attention, Ms. Beatty said. For them, help can take on many different forms: extra hugs from staff, more visits from a spouse or something tactile, such as pet therapy.
Ms. Beatty argued that caregivers should prioritize residents’ happiness instead of only seeing them as fragile. “We want to make this a risk-free world for people, and then we wonder why they disengage,” Ms. Beatty said. “We can make this so safe that we take all the joy out of life.”
Set amid woodlands and farmers’ fields in Stouffville, Ont., Bloomington Cove Care Community is another nursing home that bills itself as person-centred. Here, all of the 112 residents have dementia. Most are women in their 80s; there are just 28 men here.
Residents are encouraged to keep their familiar routines, waking up, showering and eating on their own clock. Bedrooms are private and filled with things from home – a favourite arm chair, ornately framed oil paintings, school portraits of grandchildren. Outside each room hang memory boxes, wood and glass curio cabinets filled with war memorabilia, weathered wedding photos and other treasures. Meant to stir recollection, the boxes also remind residents which room is theirs.
Many here are in the advanced stages of the disease. Some tire themselves out pacing, others hoard, hallucinate or grow depressed.
“It’s very hard to grow old,” said executive director Janet Iwaszczenko, walking the teal and beige halls.
For those suffering from frontotemporal dementia, the disease often impairs judgment and the ability to read context and social cues. People can become disinhibited around sex. Residents will occasionally mix up staff members for their spouses and require “redirecting.” Sometimes, residents will court each other. “There’s no filter,” Ms. Iwaszczenko explained. “There’s no understanding of social appropriateness.”
Things get especially tricky when residents who are married pair off with their nursing-home neighbours. These extramarital relationships often catch families off guard. Nurses and social workers observe residents, talk to them and to their spouses and relatives, documenting everything on residents’ charts.
“[Families] have a lot of upsets going through this horrible disease with someone they love,” Ms. Iwaszczenko said. “We talk about it. That’s the most important thing.”
On a sunny morning in April, staff gathered for a “risk huddle” in a glassed-in office looking out into a communal dining room. Registered practical nurse Mun Lee went over the pressing issues of the day: patients adjusting to new medication, protocols for changing bed linens and good hygiene practice (“long toenails must be trimmed,” Ms. Lee instructed).
An elderly man sailed past the windows, blowing kisses to staff through the glass. It was Denis Underhill, a sociable, 94-year-old Second World War veteran. Talk at the meeting turned to Mr. Underhill and another resident, 80-year-old Harriette Stretton. Both widowed, the two had been inseparable for three years. “They’re very in tune with each other,” Ms. Iwaszczenko said.
They’d share meals, walk the halls and sing old songs such as Easter Parade to each other. He’d talk about wanting to marry her, often. There were frequent hugs, kisses and naps. Ms. Lee raised the pair’s nap time at the staff huddle. “Close the door,” she said. “Give them privacy.”
Ms. Stretton and Mr. Underhill’s relationship came as a relief to their families.
“There seems to be an underlying sense of comfort that he knows he is not alone,” Mr. Underhill’s daughter, Nancy Beard, said.
Staff would phone Ms. Beard and Ms. Stretton’s daughter, Theresa Elvins – who have power of attorney – to let them know what was going on between the pair.
“There were a couple of instances where I’d get a call: ‘We found your mom and Denis in bed together.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh my god,’” Ms. Elvins recalled (Ms. Beard refers to it as “canoodling”).
Mr. Underhill’s health declined in the winter and Ms. Stretton’s recognition has grown spottier. “You can tell there’s a glimmer,” Ms. Elvins said. “She knows she should know us and that we’re familiar, but she couldn’t tell you that I’m her daughter.”
Asked if her mother was aware in her romantic relationship, Ms. Elvins was certain. “I knew that she had feelings for him,” she said. “I knew she was communicating what she felt, and not what she thought someone told her to feel.”
Today, the two infatuated elders remain together, although it’s never been clear whether they know each other’s names: they call each other “sweetie,” Ms. Elvins said.
“Even though they might not remember who you are, they still have feelings and needs just like anyone else.”
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