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Each time I open the heavy, steel door to the dementia wing, I'm met by the smell of old people: flaking skin, greasy hair, occasionally the waft of a soiled adult diaper. The nursing home doesn't strike me as an incubator for love.
Still, I'm fond of this place. It offers me guaranteed access to my 80-year-old mother, something I didn't always have. I take comfort knowing I'll find her among the other occupants as they sit and wait for the next thing to happen. But although the daily schedule is peppered with activities, gaps go unfilled, and with the lack of intelligible conversation, there's a lot of staring at the walls. It can feel lonely and oppressive.
I'm not the only one who is sensitive to this vibe. Two years ago, my mother was caught in the throes of a sexual encounter with another resident.
A care aide walked in on Mum and her lover. The next day, the head nurse asked my sister and me, "Do you want to let it continue?"
In our four years as Mum's guardians, we'd communicated regularly with the nursing-home staff. "Yes" to padded hip-protector pants. "No" to cutting her hair into choppy layers. "Yes" to ice cream on a day outing. But can she have sex?
That was one I hadn't anticipated — not only because I assumed the dementia-ridden were nonsexual beings, but because prior to this, as far as I knew, my mother had not done the deed for 45 years. Psychosis had thwarted her relationships, paranoia and delusions driving blade-sharp wedges between any and all who tried to love her, myself included.
Mum lived as a recluse for years, until dementia blew in like a gentle wind and extinguished the fires of her distrust. The disease softened my mother, replacing her anger with laughter. It landed her in the nursing home. And it made her easy to love. In a place where empty hours ambled by, and people could no longer recollect what once gave them purpose, perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised that a physical connection had bloomed for her.
I found the news of the tryst hilarious. Bloated from medication and mac-and-cheese, and with eyebrow and chin hairs so long they needed a trellis, Mum managed to snag a man. Or, more likely, one of them wandered into the other's room at an opportune time and the rest was history. I never even thought of viewing her as the vulnerable victim of a predator, given he suffered from the same affliction she did. What grabbed me the most, and tickled me into a state of grateful relief, was that this was where my mother and I had ended up — with her sex antics as our problem du jour.
I had been through so much with her, most of it dark and painful. From age 24 to 40, I didn't see her at all; it was only when she arrived at the nursing home that we were reintroduced. I'd been fearful; the mother I knew could reduce me to rubble with her vicious barbs and thermonuclear glower. She didn't remember me when we met, and her glower had dimmed to a benign gaze. So while most people lose a loved one when dementia sets in, I gained one back.
Now, with a nod to the rocky road we'd traveled, and struck by the absurdity of her predicament, I had a strong urge to high-five my mother. She didn't know how to turn on a radio or make a cup of tea — she didn't know me — but she remembered the moves for the Horizontal Jive.
As for Mum's boyfriend, along with dementia, he had a wife who lived in another wing of the nursing home. I wondered if his wife knew, and if she counted it as infidelity, or if she would cut him some brain-plaque slack. For whatever reason, the decision whether to drop a curfew on the affair or not hadn't fallen to her.
Weighing the matter, the application of morals seemed pointless. I chose to focus on what felt good. If Mum and her man were content — and the staff remarked that they both appeared upbeat afterward — then maybe that was all that counted. Certainly for the nursing staff, it would have been less complicated if the happy couple had drawn the line at hand-holding, but was there really anything subversive about what they were getting up to? Or down to? And, if I leaned on research about the benefits of sex, which included everything from a strengthened immune system to lower blood pressure and heart disease, there might have even been an argument that the affair could extend their lives.
Part of me wanted Mum to have one last shot at a physical romantic relationship. Except for Paul Newman, my paranoia-riddled mother disliked men. As a child, I witnessed her attempts to kick my father — her ex-husband — in the genitals on more than one occasion. Though this now-sweet, easygoing woman wasn't cognizant of her actions when she peeled off those hip protectors and cozied up to her lover, I guessed that somewhere in her brain or heart, it must have felt right.
The cautious part of me insisted I conduct due diligence. I met with an occupational-therapist friend who brought some practical issues to light.
"How's your mum's bone density?" my friend asked. "Are you worried about fractures from him lying on top of her? How big is this guy?"
"Oh God, I don't know. I hadn't thought of that," I said, pressing my eyes shut in a futile attempt to block the image.
"You could tell your mum to avoid missionary position, but she wouldn't remember." She looked at my startled face and laughed. The health threats were serious, though.
In addition to hip fractures, there was the risk of them falling out of the narrow single bed. There was the risk of vaginal tears, especially since neither Mum nor her boyfriend would remember how many times they'd met up in a day, and the nursing home wasn't in the habit of handing out lube. There was even the risk of sexually transmitted diseases: We couldn't be sure this man wasn't playing the field — or ward, as it were.
The dangers weighed on me. I would be devastated if my sister and I gave the thumbs-up to letting the affair continue and Mum ended up with a broken hip. I went to the nursing home to check out her boyfriend, and while I was impressed by his flashy Hawaiian shirt, his height and girth were worrisome: my mother measured less than five feet tall.
As the nurse introduced us, he stood up, but instead of taking my hand, he held both of Mum's. "Hello, nice to meet you," he said. "Your mum is a good girl. She's really a good girl." For emphasis, he patted her as he spoke.
"I know," I said, caught off guard by his familiarity with her. "She is a good girl."
"I love your mum," he said, still holding on to her.
"I love my mum, too." I reclaimed her by putting my arm around her shoulder, aware of a flicker of jealousy deep within. She was mine first. Maybe I wasn't ready to share her. For the first time in my life, I had a mother with whom I could sit and enjoy a visit and not feel anxious or threatened or compelled to double my antidepressant dose afterward. By most standards, it wasn't an ideal relationship, but it was a relationship. It was all I had ever wanted.
Mum and I said goodbye to her boyfriend and retired to the privacy of her room. I sat on her bed and studied her for a moment, this woman whom I had once been so afraid of. Unsure of what to do, she waited for my instruction, her hands clasped against her chest like a child.
"He really likes you, doesn't he? Do you like him?" I asked.
"Oh, yes." She appeared earnest, but I knew I could have asked if she was a kangaroo and received the same answer.
"Come sit with me." I picked up a photo album from a basket on the floor and started flipping through it. She wiggled in close, until we were shoulder to shoulder.
In that moment, as Mum pointed at old photos, inventing her own stories, I made up my mind about her sexcapades. Ending the affair would be the best way to protect my mother. To preserve her, for me.
Her boyfriend was moved to a different wing, and she promptly forgot about him. My sister and I returned to consulting with the staff about more banal matters, like sandals versus shoes, and how to get Mum to quit sleeping with her headband on because it left dents in her noggin. And I took up the challenge of bestowing upon Mum all the affection she'd miss out on now that her boyfriend was gone, as well as that which was lost during the complicated decades of psychosis, before dementia rendered her open to love.