The N.Y.Times of Tuesday April 14 carried a front page article entitled “Sex, Dementia and a Husband on Trial at Age 78”. The article detailed the story of Henry Rayhons who is being charged with third degree felony sexual abuse “accused of having sex with his wife in a nursing home”. Henry’s wife, Donna, had severe Alzheimer’s and was in a nursing home. The story discusses the background of some internal family issues, which may have come into play here. Donna passed away last August and soon after her husband was arrested. In a telling paragraph the writer, Pam Bullock wrote: “The case pivots on longstanding medical and ethical concerns that will become only more pressing as the population ages and rates of dementia rise. How can anyone determine whether a person with dementia can say yes to sex? Who has the right to decide?”
We know that many facilities do have statements that protect the rights of residents to have sexual relationships. But this case (and the details of it are too lengthy for this space) raise the issue of people with dementia or Alzheimer’s whose cognitive abilities are, obviously, impaired. If a spouse, in a moment of tenderness and love, engages in such physical relationships, who can say that this is abuse? Indeed, according to the article, follow up exams indicated no indication of abuse.
The article cites many authorities on aging and nursing home administration. One remarkable quite, from the chief executive of the Hebrew Home in Riverdale, N.Y., reminded the author of the article of the importance of presence and touch, especially in a facility where loss is so present. “So much of aging and so much of being in a long-term care facility is about loss, loss of independence, loss of friends, loss of ability to use your body. Why would we want to diminish that?”
What this raised to me is a concern that seems to be slowly emerging as our longevity revolution continues. Given the new realities of aging, do we need to create new vocabulary to deal with new stages of life? Do we need to have, as part of the intake interview for such cases as the Rayhorn’s (cases which will grow in number) questions that raise the scenario of permitting sexual relationships? And what about the growing rush of medical technology that makes such terms as terminally ill now subject to review and re-interpretation?
The aging revolution is creating an assortment of new challenges. We here at Jewish Sacred Aging would be very interested in your response to this.
Rabbi Richard F Address, D.Min