Posted by: Kate | June 11, 2008

I Hope my Great-Grandmother Had a Boyfriend

It’s a well-established fact that I don’t have a typical relationship with my mother.  We got our first tattoos together, visited a nude beach, and used to frequent gay bars.  The frequency of such outings has decreased as geography and small children interfered, but the option remains.  (As an aside, she deserves a lot of credit for managing our relationship appropriately; she was not my friend at 8, or even 18.  Then she was my mom, a parent, with the boundaries and restaints a parent needs to have.  Once I was grown and out of the house, things shifted over time.  I hope to do the same.)

We also talk about sex.  Not in gory, flinching, uncomfortable detail, but the topic is not taboo, any more than any other subject would be.  And, recently, we’ve been talking occasionally about sex between other people; specifically, between one of her clients and a fellow nursing home resident.

My mother is an elder care social worker; she makes assessments as to the appropriate living situation for a person, helps the family navigate the legal and financial issues around aging and late-life changes, provides social support and explanations for the bigger picture, smooths the process of moving from one’s own home to some form of assisted living.  I’m in awe of her competency and courage; I think my heart would break a thousand times a day if I did what she does.  I’m not sure I have the strength to consider a funeral a month to be a natural part of the job. 

Last year, one of her clients, and I’m not even sure if it’s a man or woman, was moved into a residential facility that specializes for patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia.  This person – for lack of annoyance, we’ll say it’s a man – has left a fully functioning spouse at home, and has a loving family who visits regularly.  And after a while, as happens, he stopped recognizing these benevolent people who brought him gifts and foods he might have liked.  He would still smile politely and chat inconsequentially, but with that slight anxiety and awkwardness that you get when someone has extended a waiting-room chat a bit longer than socially appropriate.  Later, his hygiene started to fade a little, as it became just too much bother.  Never unhealthily, just a tendency to wear the same shirt several days in a row and find a hairbrush to be a complicated nuisance.

And then, suddenly, sometime around the holidays, he perked up.  He asked for new clothes, and wore them.  He smiled more, hummed to himself, even sang softly when he thought no one was watching.  The family was mystified, because he was more willing to talk but still showed no glimmer of recognition.

And then, one day, they arrived during a group activity, and noticed their father, their grandfather, their old, decrepit, no-longer-himself relative, sitting off to one side with a woman of similar age.  A stranger, but clearly not a stranger to him.  They smiled at each other, with that intensity that happens only in the strongest of relationships, because anything less than a perfect bond can’t withstand that prolonged, direct eye contact.  They held hands.  They kissed. 

With tongue.

Everyone was shocked, and at first the spouse left home was deeply hurt.  How could he want to be with someone else when he could still have her?  But they waited, and thought, and overrode the impulses, and realized that he was happy.  He couldn’t remember his children’s names or his favorite sports team, but he could remember this new love.  He looked forward to seeing her, and they could only assume that the affection was returned.

So the family continued to visit, but made sure to time the visits when staff informed them that he would be alone anyway, when the other woman was off at an appointment or just elsewhere.  They never formally met the woman, never tried to force a family of strangers upon her, but politely turned their heads and allowed the man some dignity.  And some physical gratification where he could find it, because why not?  It’s part of a relationship, and his happiness was more important to them, in that time, in those circumstances, than their objections.

I’m so impressed by his family, though I’ll never meet them.  So thrilled for their open-mindedness.  I know I can do the same for my parents, if the situation, ahem, arises.  I’m not as sure that I could do the same for my husband, because my good-heartedness has limits, so instead I comfort myself with the hopes that I will outlive him and never have to think it through. 

And it makes me think of my great-grandmother, who died in 2005 in a sad, stark place, without much to comfort her.  I’m certain she was not involved with anyone at that place, because her physical limitations were so overpowering.  But before that, she was in a different living situation, a much nicer one, with private rooms and a dining room that did not feel like a military or academic institution.  And I hope, though I doubt, that she found romance there.  I hope she found someone worth a little of her time, someone who was still able to see her as a sexual being into her 80s. 

I’ll never know, of course.  But the idea makes me smile.

Note: The was written with appreciation for this Slate article, which reminded me of a story I had wanted to tell.

Another note: Sometime, I need to dedicate an entire post just to trying to describe Grandma O. I have a few amongst this blog that involve her, but she really deserves someone taking the time to remember her and write it down.



  1. Aww that’s a lovely story and you’re right, very decent of the family to allow it to continue. One of my friends’ mothers is in a similar situation although I don’t think she has a ‘boyfriend’ My friend is absolutely horrified that her mother doesn’t recognise her and so now rarely visits. It’s really not about her at all . . . I wish she had the same level of acceptance. And do write about your great grandmother, I know nothing of mine so you should record for posterity.

  2. That is a great story! My grandmother had a boyfriend for a little while after my grandfather died and it changed her in that it made her realize her life wasn’t over. It was hard for my mom and her sisters to acknowledge the relationship at first, as they didn’t like to think of her not pining away after Grandpa, but I know they will forever be thankful for the man who occupied her life and mind in those days because he helped her reinvent herself. Thanks for sharing the story.

  3. I read this the other night but had to come back and re-read and comment. What a great story and thought. I do feel bad for the family… and give them a TON of credit for letting this new love fly.

    My father’s mother dies of alzheimers. It was a slow and difficult process. Way way too slow. She lived on for many years after my grandfather has passed, and was in a nursing home – completely out of it. She wasn’t even able to get up and around for years – so, I doubt she had a boyfriend… but, it is a nice thought…

    I do remember her once telling one of the nurses that the nurse “looked like the east end of a mule going west”. Which, I thought, was hysterical and also the biggest glimpse of my “real” gram that I had see in ages….

    I not only hope my grandmother had a boyfriend… but, I hope I have one someday when I’m old and senile… maybe it will even by my husband…


  4. This sort of thing happened in a movie I recently watched called, “Without Her”. I suppose it does happen once in a while. My Mother certainly would never have forgiven my Dad if this had happened. She couldn’t forgive him for anything he did in a state of dementia.

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