At 86, William DePippa is one hip dude. Sporting an earring and suspenders, he sparked the interest of Rosemary Gould, 62, a kindly grandmother who lived down the hall at the Barn Hill Care Center in Newton, N.J. In a six-month courtship--much of it spent on the porch talking bingo and gardening--they fell in love. "Nobody bothered," says Rosemary, who has diabetes and congestive heart failure, "to come see what we were doing." A week or so before marrying in September, they moved into the same room at the home, pushing the beds together. If they wish to be undisturbed, she says simply, "We keep our door closed."
Not so long ago, the desires of senior lovebirds would make care administrators blanch, says Barbara Cox, who runs Barn Hill. But now homes for the aging are facing the facts of life: the fires of romance still burn at twilight. With people living longer and healthier--not to mention popping Viagra--there's more on the minds of some nursing-home residents than just the next visit of Christmas carolers. Some of them want romance. Not so long ago, nursing homes treated residents like children, or inmates, incapable of making their own decisions. But today many enlightened facilities are respecting the wishes of their clients. "You want to give them dignity and privacy," says Cox. "Just because they're in a nursing home doesn't mean they can't have feelings for someone else."
But the issue of sexual freedom and privacy in nursing homes can be perilous for administrators, as well as for the seniors and their families. It's one thing for a sweet, clear-eyed couple like the DePippas to share the warmth of love. It might be a different story to find your slightly bewildered mother in bed with the lecherous old man from next door. This is uncertain terrain, and American nursing homes are scrambling to frame policies that respect--and protect--its 1.6 million residents, a number that will soar in coming years as the boomers continue their inexorable march to old age. Dorree Lynn, a psychologist who is writing a book about sex after 50, calls the changed attitudes "a new paradigm for aging and sexuality."
This isn't quite Denmark, where one nursing home shows porn videos every Saturday night. But many American facilities now train workers to stay cool and nonjudgmental if they happen upon an amorous event. "Sometimes it's a little freaky," says Tina Sisneros, a nurse from Vacaville, Texas, who specializes in elder care. "But you can't demean them if you catch them in the act. You really have to teach the staff how to react in those situations." Most important is making sure both parties are cogent. But that's not always easy to discern, says Monte Miller, a San Antonio, Texas, psychologist who works with nursing-home residents. "A lot of times, it's not really clear if they're able to consent."
The liability can be enormous. A Seattle nursing home recently paid $475,000 in a settlement to the children of an 86-year-old woman who was allegedly sexually assaulted by another resident. Both victim and assailant, now deceased, were suffering from dementia. Frightened by such cases, some nursing homes put the kibosh on hanky-panky. Hansford Niles, who gets around a Texas nursing home in a wheelchair, wanted some privacy with a lady friend. "But we knew we'd be evicted from the facility if we got caught," he says. Niles, 65, finds it galling. "For God's sake, kids live together and they're not married; they have apartments. So what is the difference in old folks' being together?"
When it comes to lovemaking, some seniors can probably put young rascals to shame. But among the elderly, often it's not so much about sexual mechanics as human intimacy. The National Council on the Aging says people 60 and older typically enjoy sexual relations at least once a month--but that includes the pure delights of holding hands or sharing a kiss. "With many frail elderly, sexuality is expressed not in the act of sexual intercourse but in the simple pleasure of touch," says John Henkel, the president of Foss Home & Village in Seattle.
A good relationship can be the best tonic for whatever is ailing. Grace Bosse, 83, was deeply depressed when she entered a California nursing home a year ago. Now she is "going steady" with Henry Stull, 72, and her spirits have soared. It has certainly made her the envy of other women at the home, since Stull was quite a catch. "He's a hot commodity in this facility," says Noelle Ramsey-Chaney, director of social work at Country Hills Health Care Center in El Cajon, Calif. "A lot of the ladies were trying to court Henry because he's tall, he has good teeth and he has hair. And he can dance." In general, men are prized on the social circuit; about seven of every 10 nursing-home residents are women. Stull was smitten with Bosse from the start. "I looked across the room and said, 'I gotta meet her--she's cute'." Every night, he goes to her room for a goodnight kiss. But she hasn't invited him to stay. "Not unless we're married," she says.
The DePippas tied the knot in the dining room at the nursing home. There were 52 guests. Rosemary's son walked her down the aisle. William's son was best man. The DJ played Barbra Streisand's "I Dreamed of You," and the couple shuffled through their first dance before Rosemary returned to her walker. For their "honeymoon," they went to Atlantic City, N.J., for a nursing-home conference. The home administrator and a couple of nurses went along, too--staying in nearby hotel rooms. "He loves being married," says Rosemary.
Before long, the baby-boom generation--some of the '60s crowd is now in its 60s--will begin packing these facilities. When the old rock and rollers show up with their walkers--trendsetters to the end--the nursing homes might well become the hottest singles scene going.