Romance between residents of assisted living communities and even nursing homes are common, but they present challenges to staff and family, especially when dementia is a factor. WebMD offers a thoughtful article. And The New York Times offered some real life perspectives on this second sexual revolution.
It wasn’t supposed to be: She was a dementia-challenged, sometimes profane, and very beautiful woman whose unlined face, Bette Davis eyes, and beautiful smile made her appear decades younger. He was an ordained minister, former university professor, so reserved that he rarely smiled and then only to himself. He could barely touch anyone, least of all a woman. She was all hands, caressing as she cooed, whether it be a stuffed toy, a visiting child, me (her daughter), or, eventually, the ordained minister.
They didn’t like each other at first. She criticized his attitudes, although they were similar to her own. He criticized her knowledge of history, although it was nearly equal to his. Within months, however, they were filling in each other’s knowledge of history and finishing each other’s partially recalled lines of poetry, from the Rossettis to Whitman. At some point he allowed her to move from remarking on his “nice hair” to actually smoothing and patting it, and then…the aides were telling me that he was “in her bed” and what did I, the daughter, want them, the aides, to do?
Do? Leave them alone! The mother was long past the threat of pregnancy and whatever comfort her gentleman friend was capable of providing would be most, well, comforting to them both, for sure. So, they shared each other’s beds, my mother’s narrow daybed more often than his even smaller twin bed. I came upon them several times, in her bedroom. The first time, I found them both asleep, lying side by side and fully clothed, each with their hands folded on their chests, nearly replicating the statues of a noble couple I’d once seen, lying side by side, hands folded on their chests, atop a tomb in a Welsh church. In frozen, intimate peace for eternity. On another visit, I came upon them once again lying fully clothed in my mother’s bed. She, on her side and deeply asleep. He, spooned into her, whispering into her ear. She, unaware of his whispers. He, unaware of her sleep.
It was a love she had never known. Perhaps the same was true for him. I don’t know. But they caressed each other whenever they could, kissed impulsively, talked for hours about history, poetry, and events that were recent for them but pulled from the mists of times long past. They enjoyed the ancient comfort of lying close to each other, sound asleep and softly breathing in matching rhythms as they wandered through each other’s dreams. She had known only men who were attracted to, then frightened by, her beauty, men who deserted, men who were not equal to her sometimes savage intelligence. Only when dementia and the circumstances it necessitated crossed paths was she able to meet and accept a man who truly loved her. And only then was she able to truly love back. Wariness and a caustic wit were put aside.
Then he became ill, very ill, and was hospitalized. She visited him during his first hospitalization, and when her wandering hand began to stray from rubbing his foot toward the hem of his gown, I protested, only to be interrupted by the gentleman who said, “Oh that’s all right. Leave her alone.” And those two old people smiled at each other, then turned to smile at the daughter whose concern for propriety they gently ignored.
Months later his illness stuck again, and when he was hospitalized this time a feeding tube was put in place. We visited again, but my mother’s dementia had progressed and although she was polite it was obvious that she couldn’t quite place who he was or understand why we were there.
When he was discharged and brought back to the home, he was moved to another floor, a higher level of care. We tried to see him, but both times he was asleep and the door was closed. Finally, he was moved to a nursing home. I suggested to my mother that we visit him there. But she had no recollection of him at all and wondered, “Why would we do that?” I reminded her that he was her friend, that he was very good to her, that he talked with her for hours. She was blank.
So it ended and some people might think that is sad, but I don’t. For the first and only time in her life, it seems, she had real love. The only thing missing is the memory of it, and is that so bad? For the rest of us who had real love but lost it, our memories are intact and those memories are likely tarnished, nearly blotting out what was good and true and wonderful, if only for a time. If you ask me, I’d rather have the real thing, then have it wiped cleanly from my mind, allowing it to exist as it was, pure and simple, than have it sullied by whatever made good love go bad.
Here’s something I hope I never forget: when those two old people looked at each other, they absolutely glowed. They were absolutely in the moment with each other and there were no disappointments in the past and none ahead. Nothing else existed except their joy in each other. It was perfection. In a whole lifetime, who could ever ask for more?
*A nod to Hal David and Burt Bacharach for “This Girl’s in Love With You.” Although several vocalists recorded the song, Dionne Warwick’s interpretation is my favorite.