"Despite being 77 years old, I find myself having a great many sexual thoughts and feelings. Fortunately, these things have only been in my mind. None of this is at all characteristic of my personality. I attribute this to the changes taking place in my brain."
Stan is right about the changes in his brain. So far, he has been able to avoid acting on his thoughts but as his dementia advances, this will likely change. Dementia damages some areas of his brain less than others. One of these more functional areas is where he stores forbidden words and thoughts. Thus, Stan is beginning to think more inappropriately.
- His sensory abilities will continue to function as cognitive abilities decrease, making such feel-good activities as sex more attractive.
- His impulsiveness will increases, so that he will act upon his thoughts without stopping to consider their social acceptability.
- As illness increases Stan's feelings of inadequacy and insecurity, sex may be the way he tries to maintain his self-esteem.
- As dependence increases, it will foster a clinginess that makes sex even less attractive to his already overburdened care partner.
- As his empathy fades, he will have little understanding of why his spouse rejects once welcome overtures, why his adult child is repulsed by such behaviors or why friends are offended by crude words.
- The autonomic nervous system which controls a his sexual organs weakens. Thus, even though Stan may act out his sexual thoughts with words and touching, he may not be able to function sexually--adding more feelings of inadequacy and possible jealousy.
Awareness. The first blogs in this series have mainly been about awareness of how the dementia brain functions. Becoming aware of these changes helps you to develop helpful attitudes, which we'll talk about next week. But it also helps you to develop ways to prevent the behavior from happening.
Arrangements. By thinking ahead and making preparations, you prevent some behaviors from happening at all. Mainly this is identifying triggers and finding ways to avoid, change or respond to them
- Boredom can be decreased with a fidget blanket or regular chores. Amanda reported, "I guess Dad was using sex to alleviate boredom. When I gave him a task, like a basket of clothes to fold and refold, he's happier and doesn't bug me with inappropriate touching." The chores also make him feel helpful and relieves feelings of inadequacy.
- A need to touch may be satisfied by a stuffed animal or doll. My mother had a stuffed animal she carried with her everywhere.
- Feelings of inadequacy, insecurity and fear of loss can be alleviated with ongoing emotional support throughout the day. Diane stated: "Once I was more aware of Dick's emotional needs, I found it more important and easier to show care, compassion and conviction that I would be there for him always. That way, his anxiety levels drop and he is less afraid when I'm not there every moment."
- For friends, neighbors and other family members, make sure they know about your loved one's dementia and the way it can remove inhibitions. Remember, your loved one can and often will do Showtime around other people, which can mask the dementia.
- For strangers, consider making up a card that you can hand out as an apology. It can say something like "Please excuse my loved one. She/he has a brain disorder that increases sexual thoughts and decreases inhibitions."
- Avoid attitudes and actions that trigger negativity. Love ones tend to respond to anger with more anger, to see defending as downright lying, and to find explaining belittling. Avoid words and that don't match your actions. They will believe the actions.
- Avoid mixed messages, such as words and actions that don't match. Maintain continuity. Avoid allowing something for even a short while one time and forbidding it the next.
- Avoid nonverbal cues that might inadvertently encourage the behavior. You want your loved one to feel cared for and appreciated, but non-spouses especially will not want their touching to convey sexuality. Even spouses will not want to trigger a sexual response at the wrong time. This can be tricky because touching itself is so beneficial. In fact, regular loving touch actually tends to decrease rather than increase the likelihood of inappropriate sexual behavior especially when the behavior is an expression of neediness.
Next week's blog will be suggestions for how a spouse or an adult child can deflect unwanted sexual approaches when they occur and do it in ways that cause the least stress for both parties.
For more information about Lewy body disorders, read our books:
A Caregivers’ Guide to Lewy Body Dementia
Managing Cognitive Issues in Parkinson's and Lewy Body Dementia
Responsive Dementia Care: Fewer Behaviors Fewer Drugs
Lewy Body Dementia: A Manual for Staff
Helen and James Whitworth are not doctors, lawyers or social workers. As informed caregivers, they share the information here for educational purposes only. It should never be used instead of a professional's advice.