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A quick scan of the calendar at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale in Bronx, New York, makes it look like just another nursing home: movie night, trivia, a trip to a Yankees game.
But, as reported in a recent Bloomberg series (article list below), the Hebrew Home is different. The nursing facility actively encourages and supports sex and intimacy among its residents — including those with dementia.
But the original report in Bloomberg News also told heart breaking stories about a nursing home in Iowa, where an elderly couple with dementia had sex, and ultimately staffers were fired, the couple was pulled apart and one family sued, calling it rape.
With an issue so fraught with painful possibilities, is the Hebrew Home doing the right thing?
“Very few nursing homes around the country acknowledged the sexual behavior or intimacy of their residents,” Daniel Reingold, president and CEO of the Hebrew Home, told Here & Now. “We realized that there needed to be a grown-up conversation and a grown-up policies and procedures to govern this behavior.”
Reingold says the nursing home’s policy and procedures provide a non-judgmental, safe and effective strategy to support adults’ well-being.
“Our position is very strongly that consenting adults who have capacity, this is a civil right of theirs,” he said. “They do not give up a civil right simply because they are in need of nursing care in a facility. And that our obligation as a nursing facility is to encourage their civil rights, as we would do with respect to voting.”
However, the question of consent becomes problematic when patients have dementia, and families can become deeply upset if their parent or partner is intimate with someone else.
Reingold says that just because someone has dementia, it does not mean they are incapable of making a choice in a given moment.
He acknowledges however, that it isn’t a simple issue, and “consent is a difficult and mercurial thing.”
But a policy regarding sexual expression, which involves residents, caretakers and families, creates the conditions to avoid or minimize unwanted sexual contact or unwanted intimacy.
The Hebrew Home has had several residents who have become romantically involved, and those relationship have generally been good for the residents and acceptable to the families, Reingold said.
One resident, who Reingold calls “Phil,” became involved with another man, “Harold,” at the facility. But Phil was still married to his wife.
“These gentlemen found comfort with each other, and we had the job of discussing it with the wife,” Reingold said. “And once she realized how happy Phil was with Harold, she began to appreciate that it was giving him pleasure at the end of his life. And she began to become accepting of it.”
Reingold says that growing old is a process of loss: losing your friends, losing your spouse, losing your mobility, losing your memory. But the sense of touch is the last to go.
“Some research shows that the sense of touch never goes, even if a person is in a coma,” Reingold said. “And so why would we not want to encourage the pleasure of intimacy?”