Sex Behind the Nursing Home Curtain

By Nell Bernstein
Courtesy of

The sexual life of our elders is something we younger folks shudder to imagine (and I confess to being guilty)—whether it’s an aversion to thinking about what goes on behind a parent’s closed bedroom door, or horror at the notion of Viagra in the medicine cabinet.

This willed ignorance about the sexuality of those who, somehow or other, managed to beget us, continues all the way to the nursing home, it turns out—sometimes with heart-rending consequences.

A recent study by a team from Kansas State University includes a subtle, yet poignant, example. A married couple had moved into a nursing home room with adjacent hospital beds. One spouse had a condition that required him to elevate a leg, and the beds had been placed so that the leg was on the same side as his spouse, which made it hard for them to hold hands. Staff members didn’t see this as a problem, and told the couple, essentially, to live with it.

Slate offers an even more extreme example. Bob and Dorothy, both of whom suffered from dementia, fell in love in an assisted living facility. When Bob’s son walked in on his 95-year-old father in flagrante dilicto, he demanded staff separate the two, and ultimately moved his father to another facility. Heartbreak ensued, as did the rapid physical and psychological decline of the graying Romeo and Juliet.

Why all the suffering? Because Bob’s son couldn’t bear to think about it.

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