You see an older couple walking down the sidewalk, holding hands, staring into each other’s eyes and grinning. You think “that’s so cute”. Then they embrace and kiss. Yikes! Aren’t they kind of old for that?

Our society has marginalized people over sixty when it comes to love and sex. The “ick” factor is natural, when one thinks of his or her own parents. Who wants to think that they ever did that? Of course the fact that you exist is a clue, it’s just something most of us don’t care to think about.

But the reality is our parent’s age. Some are widowed or divorced and they remarry. Still, we don’t want the details of their intimate life.

With people living longer in assisted living and nursing homes, more romances between elders are blossoming. And with those romances comes a lot of questions. Should they be allowed to marry? Should they share a suite together? Who decides whether both people in the relationship are cognitively able to consent to sex? Where do the rights of people with dementia end, when it comes to love? And what about the opinion of the families?

This could be a nursing home or assisted living administrator’s ongoing nightmare. On one hand, we want elders to have the best quality of life they can have, whether they live at home, a retirement community, in assisted living or a nursing home. Often – hopefully – that includes friends. And some of those friends may be of the opposite sex.

This will become one of the most widely debated topics in elder care, as elders continue to spend more years in communal settings. As our baby boomers age we will see a larger demographic of elders that will be used to ‘calling the shots’. Who will decide what kind of relationships are proper for them? When you are an elder, what do you want for yourself when it comes to love and sex?

Nurses and health care aides receive training on what to do if the occasional randy elderly man makes a pass at them during bathing. That is nothing new. What is new is the much more frequent and visible “elder love” in communal settings. Also what is new is the recognition that elders have rights, and one of those rights just might be sexual expression.

Along with the efforts being made by forward-thinking people to raise issues concerning an elder’s right to be treated as an individual, with dignity and respect, come new questions. One of those questions is how do communal facilities protect an elder’s rights to love and sexuality, without harming an unwilling partner or others who may witness the situation. Another is do elders no longer need loving human touch just because they are ‘old’? Is there an age limit on love, companionship and sexual interaction?

Each situation will be unique, and there will always be questions. Are these elders mentally capable of consent? Where do the rights of the individuals stop, and the “comfort level” of the surrounding people and families take over? Expect these discussions to take time and decisions to be ever fluctuating, as these will not be easy lines to draw.

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