Can A Person With Dementia Consent To Sex?
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
A case in Iowa has put a spotlight on the issue of sexual relationships in nursing homes. Today, a jury acquitted former state lawmaker Henry Rayhons of sexually abusing his wife last May. He was accused of having sex with her after nursing-home staff told him she was no longer capable of consenting. She had Alzheimer's disease and died in August. Sex in long-term care facilities isn't uncommon, but as NPR's Ina Jaffe reports, the long-term care industry is still grappling with the issue.
INA JAFFE, BYLINE: The fact that some people with dementia still have sex lives isn't news at the Hebrew Home in Riverdale, N.Y. They've had a written policy to help staff manage such relationships for 20 years.
DANIEL REINGOLD: It was controversial in 1995, and it's controversial today.
JAFFE: Daniel Reingold is the CEO of RiverSpring Health, the nonprofit that runs the Hebrew Home.
REINGOLD: We knew that there was intimacy occurring, and we considered it to be a civil right and a legal right. And we also felt that intimacy was a good thing, that touch is one of the last pleasures we abandon and lose as we age.
JAFFE: Reingold says the policy also protects residents from unwanted sexual contact. And he argues that people with dementia are indeed capable of giving consent.
REINGOLD: People who have Alzheimer's disease or dementia are asked on a daily basis to make decisions about their desires, from what they eat to activities that they may want to engage in.
JAFFE: Including intimacy with another person. But even with a written policy, it's not that easy for nursing homes to figure out when consent to sex is really valid, says Evelyn Tenenbaum, a professor of law at Albany Law School and bioethics at Albany Medical College.
EVELYN TENENBAUM: For example, suppose you have a couple and the woman believes that the man that she's seeing is her husband. And then she consents to a sexual relationship. Is that really consent if she doesn't understand who he is and that she's not married to him?
JAFFE: Sometimes in such cases, nursing homes will defer to the wishes of the resident's family, says Tenenbaum.
TENENBAUM: On the other hand, nursing homes are required to take care of the psychosocial needs of their residents. And whether psychosocial needs would include sexual relationships is a question.
JAFFE: A question with no commonly accepted answer. The American Health Care Association, a trade group representing the majority of nursing homes, only suggests its member facilities develop their own policies. Patricia Bach, a geriatric psychologist, says when she started looking into the topic, she didn't find much.
PATRICIA BACH: There was very, very little empirical evidence, little data, few research studies and it really was a lower priority issue for long-term care providers.
JAFFE: So with a colleague, she surveyed members of the American Medical Directors Association, which represents physicians who work in long-term care facilities.
BACH: Only 25 to 30 percent actually have formal training in the area of intimacy and sexuality, as it would pertain to older adults. Thirty percent had no training at all.
JAFFE: And only about 30 percent of nursing homes had formal policies, something which needs to change and fast, says Daniel Reingold of RiverSpring Health and the Hebrew Home.
REINGOLD: We are dealing with the arrival of my fellow baby boomers who have grown up in an environment where sexuality was a much more open conversation and activity.
JAFFE: And there's no reason to think that will change, he says, even when those boomers are in long-term care. Ina Jaffe, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.