Alzheimer's and Sexuality
Common Minefields for Couples
Sexual urges don't stop just because Alzheimer's or another dementing illness invades the brain. Sometimes this is a blessing; some long-married couples say that the mind and body long remember the behaviors of sexual intimacy, even when short-term memory is on the fritz, which helps reinforce their closeness despite the disease-related adversity. Sometimes, on the other hand, sexuality coupled with dementia can cause big problems.
Few of us care to think about our parents having sex at any age or in any circumstances. But when the circumstances include dementia, certain issues might sidle up to a caregiver anyway. Reading this terrific legal overview in the Washington Post about an Alzheimer's rape case is a great reminder to family caregivers that sex is a fact of life (sometimes a thorny fact of life) all through life.
What are the most common minefields?
- A consenting couple, in which one party has Alzheimer's, but both enjoy the sexual relationship.
Potential minefields: Symptoms can ebb and flow, meaning a partner who seems like "her old self" one night might have a hard time with reading nonverbal body language and respond appropriately the next. As the ongoing demands of the disease take their toll on intimacy generally, a caregiver may feel more frustrated, less close, to the spouse, even when the sexual relationship persists.
Worth mentioning again: This is not universally true for all couples. But what is true is that the "balance of power" within the relationship is shifting in one direction, and the caregiver is more aware of these changes than the person with dementia, as time goes on.
Consensual sex between partners who live in assisted living situations is a hot button issue in long-term care. Whether one or both parties have dementia, who is to say when sexual activity should cease? Sexual communication is important to a relationship and worth respecting. And yet semi-communal living situations can afford little privacy, or make (often young) staffers who are mentally unprepared for this reality feel awkward.