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Eros Bound

When I walked into the day room of the Bay Area board and care facility where my friend Sally lives, a pall of gloom had descended on the place as bored-looking residents sat in front of a wall-sized television or picked at snacks at the long kitchen table. Even Sally, whose sunny disposition is usually a reliable ray of light in the repurposed suburban ranch house, was oddly subdued. Her “gentleman friend,” Doug, a fellow resident with whom she was contentedly giggling a short week ago, their heads nearly touching as the amorous pair huddled together, was now the picture of bereft misery. Gone were his adoring looks at Sally and his affectionate reach for her hand of just a few days ago; his overwhelming joy at her simple nearness had warmed my heart. Uh oh, I thought, as I sat down beside Sally, something’s gone down. Something bad.

The facility manager had laid down the law. No hanky-panky allowed here, no sireee. The geriatric lovebirds could no longer carry on like a couple of teenagers. Doug’s wife had gotten wind of the situation (the disgrace!) and had come unglued; Sally told me that she threatened during a recent closed-door pow-wow with the manager to move Doug to a different facility (along with his $8,000 monthly resident’s fee), far from Sally’s tempting clutches. (This is not an endorsement of marital infidelity, an entirely separate topic from individual rights.) I wasn’t privy to the precise terms of the uncoupling edict, but suspect it was along the lines of the old high school boundaries: first base, second base, or third base – though in this case it probably covered prohibitions like holding hands, cuddling, or (the scandal!), sneaking off to one or the other’s room and (scandal!) closing the door – along with their walkers, of course. And the other residents are no longer allowed to refer to them as The Lovebirds. During a recent visit Sally said, half indignantly and half wistfully, “I’m 81 years old...” 

There is a surprising puritanical prissiness around the issue of old folks getting it on. Surprising because at this stage in life many of the physical barriers that fueled our hormonal younger selves have naturally fallen away: pregnancy, for example. Yet ingrained societal mores and a prissy uneasiness persist, and not only in our own ironically repressed sexual culture where it’s pretty ho-hum to watch people maiming and killing each other on TV but never see anybody masturbating, the ultimate victimless “crime.” (Berkeley’s Good Vibrations recently announced that May is National Masturbation Month.) One of my fave legal journalists, Jeffrey Toobin, who was fired from The New Yorker for the spectacularly ill-conceived offense of masturbating (below camera level) on a Zoom conference with his co-workers. (He said he thought the camera was turned off.) Icky and tasteless, sure, to say nothing of just plain bad manners and poor taste, but hardly worthy of all that salacious news coverage and his job loss when considered against the backdrop of our violent, rapidly devolving society.

When I lived in Turkey my Turkish mother-in-law told me that when she married at 19 her own mother took some type of drug (I could never find out what it was) that plunged her instantly into menopause and ushered in her heart problems and early death. Such was the gravity of the disgrace of becoming pregnant yourself when your newly married daughter was likely to become pregnant. Tsk tsk, grandmothers aren’t supposed to still be doing that…Or perhaps in our own culture it’s a simple matter of aesthetics–all that loose, sagging skin, wrinkles, and receding gray hair. Cunning and cynical marketers with dollar signs in their eyes warn us of the ugliness of our naturally aging bodies at every television commercial break and in “lifestyle” segments – and of course how we can reverse the dreaded aging process with the clickable purchase of their magic anti-aging products (“All credit cards accepted, just $19.99 with free shipping. Senior Discount with auto-refill”)

So if you’re in a care facility, can you or can’t you (blush)? Technically and legally, you bring your rights with you when you move into a care facility like Sally’s. But as we know, having something on the books is very different from actually holding that something in your hand. – or, in this case, in your bed.

A few years back a Wisconsin ombudsman attempted to clarify this sticky issue (no pun intended) in a document that specified a resident’s rights, including (for competent residents capable of mutual consent) the right to “private and unrestricted visits with any person of choice,” and the right to “share a room with any person of choice.” The document defines an “intimate relationship” as “…two residents of the same or different genders that feel affection, closeness or tenderness for one another.” Wisconsin care facilities are also required to publicly post these and other patient rights in those facilities. 

The Mendo County website did not have a similar document that specific, or a link to a state version along the lines of the Wisconsin ombudsman’s thoughtful guidance, at least that I could find. There is a link to SeniorGuidance.org., a national organization based in Midtown Manhattan, adjacent to the Garment District, which includes a laundry list of assisted living facilities, by county. I picked one from the 15 facilities on the Mendo County list and called the listed phone number. An upbeat recorded female voice chirped, “A Place for Mom.” Thinking I had misdialed the number, I called it again. Same result. For years A Place for Mom TV commercials have blanketed TV’s daytime commercial wasteland, at one point featuring TV host Joan Lunden as its public face.

As I listen to friends and acquaintances describe the long, wasting years of physically declining parents, I tell myself how lucky I am that my own parents died at home after typical old-age illnesses that lasted a scant eight weeks each. If they could have chosen their deaths they would have chosen their own, having essentially died in their sleep. Most are not so lucky, and most of the residents of our senior community who can no longer live on their own go to some version of Sally’s board and care facility. The days of a back bedroom waiting for mom or dad at the end of his or her life are long gone, for many contemporary reasons beyond the scope of this essay. 

Our mothers, fathers, and other elderly relatives have lived full, independent, and productive lives and don’t deserve to be treated like dependent children just because they got old and can’t manage their daily household tasks anymore. (My mom used to say “You spend your whole life learning and experiencing things then no one listens to you because you’re old.”) There are still cultures around the world that respect old age and wisdom, but it ain’t this one. 

There’s so little love in the world that elderly men and women confined to four walls behind a locked door should be able to freely grab it with both hands in their final years. They’re living as we’re likely to live one day, counting down to the inevitable fate that awaits us all. They should be treated as we ourselves will want to be treated. 

5 Comments

  1. Jim Armstrong June 13, 2022

    Nurse Ratcheds are everywhere.

  2. Pat Kittle June 14, 2022

    “There are still cultures around the world that respect old age and wisdom, but it ain’t this one.”

    I know what you mean. I’m 75 and (despite civilly presenting consistently irrefutable FACTS) I can’t get no respect from AVA culture whippersnappers.

    • Eric Sunswheat June 14, 2022

      Whipper Snapper is a fun vibrant restaurant that serves delicious tapas, comfort food and the BEST sangria.

      We blend Latin American flavors with local farm fresh ingredients, organic and sustainably farmed when possible.

      Whipper Snapper is also a certified Green Business — we recycle and compost, and are partners in the food to energy program in San Rafael.

      With our Caribbean decor and lush back patio, its a tropical oasis!

      • Pat Kittle June 15, 2022

        Fortunately, not all restaurants choose to do their advertising in the Comments section.

  3. Paul Modic June 17, 2022

    Wow, good story on a taboo topic.

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