How to Support Your Parent’s Senior Living Facility Romance

Cgk Whelan
April 27, 2018

Love knows no age, but is this the right step for your parent?  

How to Support Your Parent’s Senior Living Facility Romance

When you were choosing a senior living facility with your mom or dad, their romantic needs probably didn’t factor into the decision. However, data indicates relationships, romance, and even sex are actually more common in senior living facilities than you might expect. It would seem the need for love, touch, and connection knows no age. Your parent may be lonely and hoping to enjoy the company of someone new. They may enjoy getting dressed up for a date or having a companion to talk to. They may also crave the physical connection we might take for granted until it’s no longer there.  

You may be more used to a lifetime of having your parent support you through your own romantic adventures, but now the shoe is on the other foot. This is likely a new experience that may even feel uncomfortable to some people. Take a deep breath! Here’s what you should know and what you can do to support your loved one.  

Just How Common Is This?

There is no actual data on the extent of companionable or romantic relationships occurring in senior living facilities. According to Dr. Marc Agronin, founding director of the Memory Center and Alzheimer’s Clinical Research Program at Miami Jewish Health, it all depends on how you define romance.  

“Couples forming are more common in assisted living than in actual nursing homes,” Agronin said. “Nursing home residents might develop close companionships, although not necessarily romantic ones. Commonly, it’s about sitting or walking together and maybe holding hands. Rarely are there actual sexual interactions. When these occur, it may not always be mutually agreed upon, so it is important that the staff be involved.”

Lack of privacy and mobility, especially for those who are wheelchair bound, may also be roadblocks to relationships.  

Determine Your Parent’s Ability to Consent

Determining your parent’s ability to provide consent should be your first concern, particularly if they have dementia and the relationship has a physical component.  

“It is important for designated nursing home staff to be aware of what is happening, to ensure it is consensual, especially when one or both partners have cognitive impairment,” Agronin said. “This helps prevent family conflict if one or both partners are married and their behaviors are impulsive or lack insight due to memory problems. This ultimately helps preserve privacy and dignity for those relationships which are appropriate that residents have the right to enjoy.”

Jennifer L. Fitzpatrick, a gerontology instructor at Johns Hopkins University and author of “Cruising Through Caregiving: Reducing The Stress of Caring for Your Loved One,” explained how having dementia makes dating and sexuality for older adults a bit more complicated.

“The ability to give consent is a gray area,” Fitzpatrick said. “One resident who does not have dementia may be romantically interested in someone who does. Someone with dementia may seem perfectly coherent in one moment, and a few hours later, less so. Staff are limited on what can be disclosed due to HIPPA and confidentiality. An open-minded staff can be very helpful to residents who wish to engage in sexual activity. They can discuss safer sex -- not just information about condoms, but precautions about how not to exacerbate health problems during sex.”

Determining your parent’s needs while ensuring their safety is paramount. If you have concerns that your parent is not willingly involved in their relationship with another resident, it is imperative you discuss the situation with staff. Having dementia does not, however, automatically mean your parent is unwilling, as was famously disclosed by Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in the instance of her husband, John. John O’Connor had Alzheimer’s disease but still found new love with another resident at his assisted living center.  

What Are the Benefits?

Agronin recalled an incident when two residents fell in love. They didn’t remember each other’s names, but they walked around holding hands and were more active and engaged in activities. Even with memory impairment, romance for this couple was joyful and meaningful.  

“So much data suggests that being isolated or lonely increases our risk for many physical and mental health conditions,” Fitzpatrick said. “Having a special friend can potentially lessen isolation and loneliness.”

The benefits of a new relationship can also reduce depression. Another of Agronin’s patients was admitted into a facility with persistent depression, coupled with the inability to care for herself after her husband’s death.  

“I treated her for more than a year with minimal results in mood,” Agronin said. “Then she stopped coming to appointments. I went to see her and was startled by how happy she was. Had she started seeing another psychiatrist? No. She was having a romance with another resident.”

If your parent seems happier, his or her new relationship may be providing them with deep, emotional benefits, able to support better physical and mental health. Loving connections and special friendships improve quality of life, no matter the age.  

How Can You Support Your Parent?  

Just as your parent was there for you during your romantic ups and downs, you should now be there for them, once their safety and wellbeing has been ensured. 

“Seeking romance, intimacy, and even sex is simply part of being alive, and adult kids should strive to accept that,” Fitzpatrick said.  

There are several things you can do to help your parent enjoy this time.  

Communicate about your parent’s relationship with the facility. Determine as a team what needs to be done to support your parent, in terms of privacy and mobility.  

“If your parent is LGBTQ, make sure the building is supportive of LGBT residents, their partners, and needs,” said Mary Helen McSweeney-Feld, associate professor of Health Care Management in the Department of Interprofessional Health Studies at Towson University. “Many buildings say that they are, but in reality, residents are ostracized by others if they come out to the community.”  

Be your parent’s confidante and share their excitement with them. Simply listening can help them feel validated and accepted in their relationship. Also, be sure to be a good listener if the relationship doesn’t work out.

Make sure they have nice clothing to wear and accessibility to grooming services, such as a barber, manicurist, or hair salon. This can help them enjoy the fun of getting ready for dates, even if that simply means enjoying a meal together in the dining room.  

You may understandably be concerned about your parent’s financial standing. 

“Some adult children may be concerned that their parent’s paperwork will change to put the new, special friend in charge,” Fitzpatrick said. “Having discussions with your parent, elder law attorney, or financial advisor, and being upfront about your concerns is important. It is also important to remember that if the parent is cognitively intact, he or she ultimately has every right to adjust paperwork at any time.”

The most important thing to consider is your parent’s wellbeing.  

“It is startling how many adult children, even in their 50s or 60s, become jealous or hurt because of a new relationship, even if it is giving so much joy to their parent,” Fitzpatrick said. “Some adult children genuinely expect a widowed parent to mourn the lost spouse indefinitely and not enjoy the company of a new friend.”

Agronin recommended knowing fully what your parent’s interests and desires are, as well as determining their ability to carry them out. This can help guide how much you need to get involved.  

“People are in nursing homes because of significant physical and cognitive impairments, and these must be factored into to any daily activities,” Agronin said. “At the same time, they have important rights and needs that must be respected and facilitated.”

You may not have visualized your parent or you being in this situation. Acknowledging your own feelings and keeping your parent’s best interests at heart will help you to navigate these waters in a way that provides joy, comfort, and happiness to everyone involved.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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