Bioethics Blogs

Ethics, sexuality, and dementia in long-term care

Alisa Grigorovich and Pia Kontos suggest that long-term care residents with dementia can benefit from leisure and social activities that are supportive of sexual expression and the formation of intimate and romantic relationships.

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Recently, media stories on dementia have focused on the sexualities of persons living with dementia in residential long-term care settings, such as nursing homes. This media attention has been predominantly negative, consisting of descriptions of sexual violence, and apocalyptic warnings of the legal, ethical, and moral dangers of allowing persons with dementia to express their sexuality.

Often the primary criterion used to determine whether sexual encounters between residents with dementia are involuntary is the cognitive ability of the female resident. Frequently, she is characterized as globally incapable of agreeing to sexual activity because of cognitive impairment.

Consider, for example, the now infamous case of Henry Rayhons. He was accused (and ultimately acquitted) of sexually assaulting his wife who had dementia. As well, there is the lawsuit filed in a case involving two residents with dementia who had intercourse while living in Windmill Manor. While such stories highlight the importance of protecting vulnerable persons from sexual abuse, they ignore the need to also ensure that persons with dementia have opportunities to pursue intimate and romantic relationships.

Sexual expression is a universal human need that transcends age and disability. It has many positive health and wellness benefits, including the opportunity to experience pleasure, decreased pain sensitivity, and increased relaxation. However, older persons living in nursing homes often experience reduced sexual freedom.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.