As many of you may already know, I am in a Gerontology graduate program. The topic for study this week is how the culture of youth in the United States contributes to the minimization of older adults’ need for intimacy, love, and sexual expression. As a society, we often associate the word intimacy with sexuality, but it pertains to so much more: emotional connectedness, feelings of safety, trust, loyalty, comfort, worth, hope, and ease with others and self, and involves more in-depth relationships. Affection, confidence, confidentiality, familiarity, friendship, fellowship, camaraderie, agreement, cooperation, membership, participation, partnership, unity, understanding, rapport, sympathy, harmony, affinity, communion, experience, and inwardness are synonyms for intimacy.
Every person born on the planet has basic needs: food, water, shelter, love, sense of belonging, worth, and purpose. We advocate and demand these needs, along with many others, for our children because their happiness and well-being is most important to us. As young adults, freedom to speak our minds and act the way we choose is considered a right. Later, as middle aged folks, we feel we have worked hard for, earned and deserve great respect. What do we allow older adults if we strip away their humanness because we assume they no longer require intimacy? At what age is it embarrassing or wrong to need friendships? At what age should people be viewed as invisible, unfeeling, and/or incapable of enjoying all the relationships, feelings, and privileges we cling to as rights? When is it ok to say “you no longer matter”?
Bud has been married to his sweetheart, Faye for 52 years. They have two grown children and several grandchildren who live close by. Family is very important—they support each other as life and needs change. Bud and Faye bought the small, but comfortable home Bud still lives in when they were first married. The marriage has been good; life has been good. Faye was moved to a nursing home last year, as she is suffering from late-stage Alzheimer’s disease. She requires constant supervision and care, which Bud lovingly provided until her needs became too difficult for him to handle. He visits 4-5 times a week because he misses her at home and, even though she doesn’t usually recognize him, wants her to know he still loves her. Sometimes there is a moment of partial understanding when he holds her hand or kisses her cheek, but most times Faye is vacant and unemotional. Bud still has the strong need to be close to his best friend and believes she still needs him too. Staff at Faye’s new home are uncomfortable with Bud’s display of affection, although none of it is inappropriate–he sits next to her on the sofa, holds her hand while he talks, and hugs her when he arrives and before leaving. He has been discouraged by healthcare professionals with negative responses (words, actions, and looks).
This scenario is more common than you might think: couples being physically, mentally, and emotionally separated by diseases and difficulties comon in later life. Sadly, many people caught in this situation do not receive encouragement, thoughtfulness, consideration (or even, forgive me for saying it, but it’s the attitude many have PERMISSION) to continue personal, private, intimate relationships in most nursing, assisted living, respite care, and/or private care settings. Another story that comes to mind happened years ago, while working as a nurse’s aide, and I will never forget it. The belief that older people don’t need love or to express it anymore was typical and even promoted in the 1980s. I remember the arrival of an elderly couple in their mid-90s, who had been married for over 70 years being assigned to different rooms on different floors of the nursing home the day they were admitted due to inability to care for themselves any longer. I was appalled and heartbroken as the very ill wife was quickly wheeled to her 2nd floor women’s wing 4-patient room and the husband stood crying alone in the hallway after being told he had a room on the 3rd floor men’s wing.
As caregivers, families, healthcare providers, friends, and human beings in ANY situation or setting we find ourselves in we need to change the way we see aging and old age by personally treating older adults with respect, kindness, and inclusion. Every single person should be allowed the right to intimacy, love, dignity, hope, and self-worth. I challenge anyone reading this to treat older adults the way you would like to be treated.
~Tamara Nixon, BS, CHES