Dementia and Intimacy - Having “The Talk” with Older Parents About the Birds and the Bees

Celebrating my parents' 56th Wedding Anniversary
Celebrating my parents' 56th Wedding Anniversary

Understanding the sexual practices and preferences of people with healthy brains can be perplexing. But when our parents or grandparents start talking about their sexual problems, conquests, or desires, we want to cover our ears and run out of the room.

At least that’s how I felt when my mother wrote a letter asking me to come home and have the “sex talk” with my eighty-year-old father. Dad was struggling with prostate cancer and the effects of a debilitating stroke he had suffered several years earlier. Somehow he got it in his mind, that if my mother would just arrange a date for him, he could have sex with Avis, the girl he’d taken to his high-school senior prom sixty years earlier.

Once he decided it was a possibility, he followed Mom from room to room asking, “Have you called Avis? When are you going to call Avis? Why haven’t you called Avis? Have you call Avis? When are you going to call Avis?”

Finally, exasperated by his unrelenting pestering, Mom went to the phone  and arranged a time for Avis and her husband to meet them for lunch.

 When Avis came walking into the restaurant, she had an oxygen bottle strapped to her walker.

 The four of them enjoyed their meal and had a nice visit. Mostly Mom and Avis’ husband talked about the things they were doing to make caring for their spouses a little easier.

 When they got in the car to go home, Mom turned to Dad and said, “Well, what do you think of Avis now?”

He said, “I think she wants me.”

The fact that he’d been wearing adult diapers for almost four years, and that Avis was on oxygen and needed a walker, did nothing to cool Dad’s ardor. As the weeks passed, he just became more and more obsessed with the idea of having sex with her. Finally, my mother reached the point of exasperation, so she wrote and asked me to come home and talk some sense into my dad. 

 How I Botched the “Sex Talk” With Dad

 I got Dad in the pickup and we went for a drive. When he complained to me about Mom cutting him off, I pulled over to the side of the road, switched off the ignition, and attempted to set him straight.   

 I tried to reason with him, and when that didn’t work, I scolded him. Finally, I told him he was not going to have sex with Avis, and he needed to just knock it off and stop talking about it.

In other words, I did everything wrong!

 At that time, we had not heard the terms “stroke-related dementia” or  “dementia-related inappropriate sexual behavior.” If we had, I would have handled things much differently.

 I now know that surprising and inappropriate sexual behavior isn’t at all unusual in stroke survivors, people who are living with Alzheimer’s, and individuals who take Dopamine to control the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease.

 I also now know that there are a lot of effective strategies for communicating effectively with a person who has dementia, as well as three things that will NEVER work.

The Three Don’ts of Dementia 

  1. Don’t argue. Their reality is as real to them as your reality is to you. You will never, ever, ever win an argument with a person who has  dementia.
  2. Don’t try to talk them out of it. It doesn’t matter how rational or reasonable you are or how much empirical evidence you provide, you will never persuade them to see it your way.
  3. Don’t pressure them to remember. Memories that are erased by dementia never return. Pressuring them to recall memories of people, things, and events that they have lost will only make them feel frustrated and angry.

 My Mother’s Coping Strategy

 A few weeks after I botched the sex talk with Dad, I got another letter from Mom. She said she had come to the conclusion that Dad was “just not playing with a full deck.” So instead of being upset, she decided to just have fun with the story.

 She called Avis and told her why Dad really wanted to see her. Avis was actually quite flattered, and she had a lot of fun telling all her friends about  her amorous new boyfriend. Initially, Avis’ husband was taken aback, but he ended up being very kind and accepting of the situation. 

Several months later, on the drive home from yet another get together with Avis and her husband, Dad turned to Mom and said, “I’m glad I didn’t marry Avis.”

Mom said, “Really, why’s that?”

He said, “Didn’t you see her teeth?  Our kids would have looked like chipmunks!”

 That was the end of his infatuation, and Dad went back to being the loving, faithful husband he had always been.

 As I reflect back on the “Avis Affair,” the thing that impresses me the most is the fact that my mother didn’t know the science behind the damage that had occurred in my dad’s brain, but she did know him. She knew that Dad’s obsession with Avis did not diminish the love they had shared for more than fifty years or the sanctity of their marriage. She made a conscious decision to not feel angry, jealous or hurt.  She chose instead to focus on the humor of the situation and to have fun with the story.

 We Never Outlive Our Desire for Intimacy

 The good news, or bad news, depending on your perspective, is that we never outlive our desire for affection, our yearning for intimacy, and our need to love and be loved.

We all hope that we will age with grace and dignity, but if we develop dementia, it’s more likely than not that we will engage in a few outrageous behaviors.

 I can only hope that if I’m stricken by Alzheimer’s or another terrible dementia-related disease, that my spouse, children, and friends will understand that the disease is in control. I hope they will not judge me harshly, and that they will treat me with kindness and respect. And if they have a few laughs at my expense, I’m pretty sure I won’t hold a grudge. 

 If you’d like to watch my TEDX Talk on this topic, please click here: Sexuality and Dementia, “Having the Sex Talk with Dad” 













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