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I planned activities in nursing homes for about six years, at three different homes. Everywhere I worked, the residents' favorite activity was live music — especially for people with any kind of cognitive decline, hearing a familiar old song can really bring out new life in them. Other activities included visits from a volunteer with a pet poodle, and current-events discussions hosted by a community college professor. And then there was porn night.
The activity director at one nursing home was very sex-positive, and it was her mission to help elderly people have healthy sex lives. So about once a month, she'd go to an adult movie place, rent a porn movie, set it up in our VHS player, put it in the activity room, and go around to all the guys she knew were interested to tell them it was movie night. We had an old-fashioned popcorn machine and she'd pop popcorn for them. When the actual movie was showing, though, she stayed outside. It would be only men inside — I don't know if she felt like women wouldn't be interested or what, but she considered it a men-only activity. It was very much off the books — I don't think her bosses would've let her do it if they knew.
At that same home, there was a regular volunteer who was part of a local Baptist congregation, and she'd come every couple of weeks to give a church service. She was a real fire-and-brimstone kind of Baptist, very focused on avoiding Hell, and in one sermon she told the residents, "I know some of you have boyfriends and girlfriends here, and you're kissing and hugging on 'em. God sees you and if you keep that up you know where you're going and it ain't to Heaven." I was horrified. The vast majority of our residents were widows and widowers, and some of them had dementia — her speech was just unnecessarily frightening for them.
Relationships between residents weren't really that common — maybe about 10% of the residents were in relationships with each other. In general, if both people seemed to be consenting, we indulged or even encouraged them to have relationships because that's a healthy part of life at any age. I couldn't really say how many residents were sexually active, but I would hear stories from nursing staff who would walk in on them at night. They'd have to quickly assess the situation and make sure they were both okay with it, and if so, give them some privacy.
Generally the residents were pretty nice — I'd say for the most part people's personalities stay consistent into old age, so if someone had been a nasty rude malcontent when they were young, that's probably also how they were going to be as an elderly person.
Some people did change, though. I worked at one nursing home that was also a convent and housed a lot of retired priests, and the monsignor there could be a problem. A lot of the staff had been there 20 years or more, and they told me he'd been really highly respected and accomplished and intelligent and amazing, but by the time that I met him he was very far advanced into Alzheimer's, and it turned him into this really mean old coot. He was also hypersexual, and anytime a female staffer would come into his room, he'd grab her crotch, try to feel her boobs, or try to grab her hand and put it on his penis. I got grabbed a few times.
Sexually inappropriate behavior is a pretty common thing that happens with dementia. It might be similar to when toddlers masturbate themselves — they don't really understand that what they're doing is frowned upon. You can't really hold it against them because they don't know what they're doing — you just kind of gently pry their hands off you.
Women could be inappropriate or aggressive too. I remember one woman who was very agitated and confused — she had fallen down and the nursing staff were trying to make sure nothing was broken or bleeding. They called me into the room to help keep her still, and she looked right at me and said, "I know what you're doing, you nasty dyke. You're trying to touch my pussy." I just tried to be reassuring and told her, "It's okay, I'm not trying to hurt you." She was usually sweet; I felt bad for her.
Working at nursing homes gave me mixed feelings about getting older. It made me feel fortunate to realize how young I am. I'm 31, and my friends say, "I feel so old," but I'm like, "Come talk to me when you're 105." It makes me realize how much I have in terms of health and mobility and independence. And it makes you see how bad it can really get — some of these people had no one visiting them, and that's really scary to me, the idea of growing so old that people forget about you or don't seem to care about you anymore.
Working there also brought up some philosophical questions. For instance, if you lose the use of your body and become immobile, many people would be depressed but they'd be like, "I'm still me." But what happens when you lose your mind, when you forget who your family is, when you don't know what year it is, when you don't know where you are? Who are you at that point? Would you still want to be alive?
But the best part of my job was just talking to people, learning about their lives. I talked to this man at one of the homes who was one of the first black bus drivers to drive an integrated bus. He told me that when white passengers came on, he'd have to worry about violence. And there was one woman who told me she was the first woman to ever graduate from her dental school, so she was a real trailblazer for other women. It was so cool to hear the stories of these people's lives and all the experiences that they'd had — the generation that most of the residents were a part of was witness to so many amazing things.
As told to Anna North.