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Dementia patients’ rights considered

Whether their parents still want sex probably isn’t at the top of the minds of most people choosing a nursing home for their loved ones.

But experts from the Widener University-based Sexuality and Aging Consortium say a groundbreaking Iowa court case illustrates why both consumers and long-term care facilities should do more thinking about sex — before they get into trouble.

In the Iowa case, Henry Rayhons, a 78-year-old former member of the Iowa House of Representatives, is charged with sexual abuse for having sex with his wife of seven years in her nursing home. She had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. A doctor at the Garner, Iowa, facility where Donna Rayhons lived, and her two daughters from a previous marriage, concluded that she was too impaired to consent to sex.

The case, which is at trial, raises complex questions about what constitutes consent for a person with dementia and how nursing homes should prepare for the inevitable: People of all ages want and need sexual contact.

“Our need for touch is universal, from birth to death,” said Robin Goldberg-Glen, a social work professor at Widener who is co-president of the consortium.

The group, which includes about 40 experts on sexuality and aging from around the country, educates professionals and students in an attempt to reduce discrimination and advocate “for the rights of people in long-term care to have their sexuality respected and their choices respected,” said co-president Melanie Davis, a sexuality educator in Summerville, N.J.

Media reports say Rayhons was told that his wife was not capable of consenting to sex. It’s unclear what kind of contact occurred between them while a curtain was pulled between her side of the room and her roommate’s last May. Semen that matched his genetic profile was found on her quilt and sheet. The roommate complained about the noises she heard, but did not describe sounds of a struggle.

Figuring out what consent means for someone with dementia is tricky. Responding positively to touch is quite different than deciding whether you want to buy a new car or would rather have chicken than fish for lunch.

Gayle Doll, director of Kansas State University’s Center on Aging and an adviser to the consortium, said “people with dementia, we make every decision for them,” she said. “We’ve got to start hearing their voices.”


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