Too Old for Sex?
...Not at This Senior Home

by Winnie Hu

When Audrey Davison met someone special at her nursing home, she wanted to love
her man.

Her nurses and aides at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale did not try to stop her. On the
contrary, she was allowed to stay over in her boyfriend’s room with the door shut
under the Bronx home’s stated “sexual expression policy.” One aide even made the
couple a “Do Not Disturb” sign to hang outside.

“I enjoyed it and he was a very good lover,” Ms. Davison, 85, said. “That was part of
how close we were: physically touching and kissing.”

    Ms. Davison is among a number of older
    Americans who are having intimate
    relationships well into their 70s and 80s,
    helped in some cases by Viagra and more
    tolerant societal attitudes toward sex outside
    marriage. These aging lovers have
    challenged traditional notions of growing old
    and, in some cases, raised logistical and
    legal issues for their families, caretakers and
    the institutions they call home.

    Nursing homes in New York and across the
    country have increasingly broached the issue
    as part of a broader shift from institutional to
    individualized care, according to nursing
    home operators and their industry groups.

Many have already loosened daily regimens to give residents more choice over, say,
what time to bathe or what to eat for dinner. The next step for some is to allow
residents the option of having sex, and to provide support for those who do.

“Sex falls right smack dab in the middle of who we are as people,” said Marguerite
McLaughlin, senior director of quality improvement for the American Health Care
Association, the nation’s largest trade association for nursing homes, representing
nearly 10,000 of them.

The Hebrew Home has stepped up efforts to help residents looking for relationships.
Staff members have organized a happy hour and a senior prom, and started a dating
service, called G-Date, for Grandparent Date. Currently, about 40 of the 870
residents are involved in a relationship.

    Many others are ready for one. Beverly
    Herzog, 88, a widow, said she missed
    sharing her bed. Her husband, Bernard,
    used to lie on the bed with his arm
    outstretched. Assume the position, he
    would tell her. She would curl up beside
    him. “I hate getting into a cold bed,” she
    said. “I feel no one should be alone.”

    But intimacy in nursing homes also
    raises questions about whether some
    residents can consent to sex. Henry
    Rayhons, a former Iowa state legislator,
    was charged with sexual abuse in 2014
    after being accused of having sex with
    his wife, who had severe Alzheimer’s
    disease and was in a nursing home. A
    jury found him not guilty.

The case helped call attention to the lack of clear guidelines for many nursing homes;
only a few, like the Hebrew Home, have any formal policy at all.

Dr. Cheryl Phillips, senior vice president for public policy and health services for
LeadingAge, an industry group that represents more than 6,000 nonprofit elder-care
service providers, including about 2,000 nursing homes, said sex would come up more
often as baby boomers moved in. “They’ve been having sex — that’s part of who they
are — and just because they’re moving into a nursing home doesn’t mean they’re
going to stop having sex,” she said.

Daniel Reingold, the president and chief executive of RiverSpring Health, which
operates the Hebrew Home, said growing old was all about loss: vision, hearing,
mobility, even friends. Why should intimacy have to go, too? “We don’t lose the
pleasure that comes with touch,” he said. “If intimacy leads to a sexual relationship,
then let’s deal with it as grown-ups.”

The nursing home came up with a sexual expression policy in 1995 after a nurse
walked in on two residents having sex. When the nurse asked Mr. Reingold what to
do, he told her, “Tiptoe out and close the door behind you.”

    Before adopting the policy, the Hebrew
    Home surveyed hundreds of nursing homes
    in New York and elsewhere, only to find that
    “most of them even denied that their
    residents were having sexual relationships,”
    Mr. Reingold recalled. He later spoke about
    the findings at an industry conference, asking
    an audience of more than 200 people if sex
    was going on in their nursing homes. The
    only ones who raised their hands were three
    nuns in the front row, he said.

    Today, the sexual expression policy is
    posted on the home’s website and reviewed
    with staff members.

Mr. Reingold said it was intended not only to encourage intimacy among those who
want it, but also to protect others from unwanted advances and to set guidelines for
the staff. For instance, the policy stipulates that even residents with Alzheimer’s can
give consent for a sexual relationship under certain circumstances.

Though the nursing home has never been sued over the policy, Mr. Reingold said,
some families have objected to such relationships, especially if one of the residents is
still married to someone else who is not at the nursing home.

Relationships also mean more drama for the staff, which tries to keep up with who is
together and who is not. The dining room can be a land mine. Sometimes, one
member of a couple will get jealous when the other pays attention to someone else.
Other couples become too amorous, prompting calls to “keep it in your room.”

Still, Eileen Dunnion, a registered nurse who has three couples on her floor, said she
encouraged her patients to take a chance on a relationship, reminding them, “You get
old, you don’t get cold.” A few years ago, she served as a lookout for a man who had
two girlfriends. He never got caught. “I did my job well,” Ms. Dunnion said. “Nurses
wear many hats.”

    Kelley Dixon, 74, said sex had
    become more important to him
    because it did not happen as
    regularly as he would like. “It’s not
    about bang-bang and I’ll see you
    later,” he said. “It’s about enjoying
    the company of who you’re having
    sex with. I’m not keeping track
    anymore. I don’t have notches on
    my gun.”

    In the past year, a dozen people
    signed up for G-Date. Half of them
were matched by social workers and sent on a first date at an on-site cafe. None
found love, though some became friends. “We’re not giving up,” Charlotte Dell, the
director of social services, said. “We’re going to get a wedding out of this yet.”

Francine Aboyoun, 67, is waiting to be set up through G-Date. She said she remained
hopeful that she would meet someone. While living at another nursing home, she met
a man who would come to her room at night. Though they did not have sex, they
kissed and lay together in her bed. “Wow, it felt like I was young again,” she said.

Ms. Davison, who is divorced, said the last thing she ever expected was to find the
love of her life at a nursing home. She met Leonard Moche in the elevator. He was
smart and made her laugh. She moved to his floor to be closer to him.

Ms. Davison said they had been planning to get married when he suddenly became ill;
he died this year. She is still grieving.

“I think of him as my second husband,” she said. “It was great and unexpected, and
wonderful while it lasted.”

This article appeared in the print version of the New York Times on July 13, 2016, on page A15 of the New
York edition with the headline: "Too Old for Sex? a Nursing Home in the Bronx Says No Such Thing.".
Reprinted with permission
"I hate getting into a cold bed,” Beverly Herzog, 88,
said. “I feel no one should be alone.”
Credit James Estrin/
The New York Times
Credit: BigStock Photo
Credit: BigStock Photo
Credit: BigStock Photo