Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Sexual Intimacy in the Nursing Home

The most recent issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics has an excellent article from the Centre for Evidence-Based Aged Care in Australia - "Dementia, sexuality and consent in residential aged care facilities."

The authors' argue that "while we must abide by laws regarding consent and coercion, in general we [in the West] expect to be able to engage in sexual behaviour whenever, and with whomever, we choose." In their view, nursing homes should allow for sexual intimacy and interfere only for clearly defined reasons, rather than treating sexuality as a special privilege that must be earned by requiring both parties to "prove" decisional competence, and, often, to require permission from families.

The authors are drawing on the concept of "dignity of risk." Meaningful life entails taking risks. If we agree with John Stuart Mill that as long as individuals are (a) not causing harm to others and (b) understand the nature and consequences of their proposed actions ("decisional competence"), then(c) their liberty should not be constrained. The authors recognize, but do not discuss in depth, the challenge of assessing "competence" in the presence of dementia. To my reading they underestimate the potential risks, as when one party erroneously believes that the other is their spouse or partner. But they're right that we tend towards excessive prudishness with regard to sexuality in our parents and grandparents.

This was the explicit focus of teaching when I was a medical student. We were in our 20s, so patients in their 70s and 80s were the age of our grandparents. When teaching us how to take a medical history our instructors warned us that we might feel uncomfortable asking about sex with patients in that age range. They reminded us that we were doctors-in-training learning a medical role, not prurient children or grandchildren peeking through keyholes into a bedroom.

My father was something of a ladies man. He outlived three wives and, over the years, I was aware of a number of his girlfriends. In the final months of his life he suffered from dementia and heart failure, along with blindness, and was in a nursing home. On a visit that turned out to be just two days before his death, we returned to his room to find an elderly woman lying on his bed. I said in what must have been a saccharine-toned voice "this is my father's bed." She responded, with a mischievous smile and a twinkle in her eye, "I know."

Knowing that flirtation was alive and well so near the end of my father's life is a happy memory for me!

(The full article is only available by purchase, but a free abstract is available here.)

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