by Kiersten Hallie Krum
I visited my 95-year-old grandfather in the nursing home this weekend and I wasn’t in the common room five minutes before there was a cat fight between two elderly woman while the man over whom they sniped watch The Three Stooges without care. Apparently, the woman who canoodled with the man was not his wife though she frequently claims to be so, along with several other male residents.
The woman who objected was, essentially, calling the other woman on her shit. It is likely the most acrimonial interaction I’ve ever witnessed in a elderly-care facility, though that’s not to say it’s uncommon. When my mother served as director of nurses in a nursing home, she often had wild stories of unapproved slumber parties among the residents.
Just ’cause you’re old, doesn’t mean you’re not horny.
We like to think of elderly love in adorable pictures that will make you believe in love again. But the truth is that nursing home and retirement communities are increasingly more like college campus dorms and Greek houses—togas not included. People are living longer and are in better health during those extended years. And as women outnumber men in most nursing homes 7 to 10, throw in some little blue pill action and the Golden Years become a playa’s paradise.
Nursing homes are scrambling to adjust administration policies to account for seniors who are still ready and eager to rumble with each other. “Very few nursing homes around the country acknowledge the sexual behavior or intimacy of their residents,” Daniel Reingold, president and CEO of the Hebrew Home for the Aged, told public radio program Here & Now last August. “We realized that there needed to be a grown-up conversation and a grown-up policies and procedures to govern this behavior.”
An editorial in The Journal of Medical Ethics argues that “while every effort should be made to ensure that no resident comes to harm, RACFs [residential aged care facilities] must respect the rights of residents with dementia to make decisions about their sexuality, intimacy, and physical relationships.” Many of them already appear to be doing so. A federally-funded study by The New England Journal of Medicine found that many older Americans engage in sex, oral sex, and masturbation. According to the study, 53% of people between 65 and 74 are sexually active, a number that decreases to 26% for individuals aged between 75 and 85.
“Somewhere along the line, the idea of sex got tangled up with the concepts of youth and virility. Which led to the idea that sex is only for the young and healthy, and even the misconception that sex is dangerous for the elderly,” notes Rachel Lesser in “Sex in the Nursing Home? The Surprising Facts About Senior Sexuality.”
Not all elder care institutions are so sanguine about allowing residents the freedom to love. After the Windmill Manor, Coraville, IA scandal in 2009 where two dementia patients were found having sex with each other inciting questions of consent and accusations of rape, many elderly care facilities chose to crack down on the rise of sexual activity between their residents rather than risk a similar situation. “This is uncertain terrain,” said Dirk Johnson and Julie Scelfo in their Newsweek article “Sex, Love, and Nursing Homes.” “American nursing homes are scrambling to frame policies that respect—and protect—their 1.6 million residents, a number that will soar in coming years as baby boomers continue their inexorable march to old age.” At the moment, only 18 states currently allow conjugal visits in nursing homes and only four allow those to be outside of a marital status.
Things become more complicated by the fact that the majority of senior citizens are from an era that predates the education of safe sex. With pregnancy no longer an option and hanky panky a top choice on the seniors menu, STD testing has become as common a requested health maintenance test as colonoscopies. “In 2011 and 2012, 2.2 million beneficiaries received free sexually transmitted disease screenings and counseling sessions. And more than 66,000 received free H.I.V. tests,” says The New York Times “Sex and the Single Senior”. Chlamydia infections also increased between 2007 and 2011 by 31% and syphilis by 52% in the 65 and older crowd. “Both ageism and age-related changes in the body result in the ability for STDs to be contracted more easily and go undetected for longer, which could potentially cause more harm,” writes Lara Belonogoff in Caring.com’s “Sex and Seniors: the Debate Continues”. Yet there are no reports of elder-care facilities installing a condom machine next to the low-sodium snacks.
Back at the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Bronx, NY, respectful policies are already in play for staff to use when handling romantic and sexual relationships between residents. “Our position is very strongly that consenting adults who have capacity, this is a civil right of theirs,” Reingold said to Here & Now. “They do not give up a civil right simply because they are in need of nursing care in a facility. And that our obligation as a nursing facility is to encourage their civil rights, as we would do with respect to voting.” This applies to same-sex couples as well as the home discovered when one of its married residents began a relationship with another male resident in the home. The Hebrew Home worked with all three parties to address the needs and desires of all.
Most of us are more comfortable believing our parents never had sex beyond the required means for procreating our selves and siblings. Surely considering the sex lives of our grandparents causes skeevy feelings in entirely new places. But people at every age want love and companionship and while the levels and abilities may alter, desire remains full and real. It is a privacy issue and a rights issue but above all, it’s a love and sex issue.
My friend, erotic romance writer Cris Anson, is a woman of a certain age who cheerfully writes her novels with the joie de vivre of a woman half her age. Delightfully bawdy, Cris had the opportunity to be her own cover model in her book What She Needs where the heroine is a cougar experimenting new sexuality with a younger man, ably demonstrating that in print as in life, love and romance can and do happen at every age.
Follow Lady Smut. We take all (legal) age groups.