What does dementia mean for your sex life? 11



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Anne Fairhall and her husband had always been ‘that’ couple you’d want at your dinner party. Happily married for decades, the Melbourne-based, middle-class couple aged in their late-50s, exhibited intellect and culture. Fairhall, a former nurse, was a successful businesswoman. Her husband ran universities. The seasoned academic could speak seven languages and was an experienced light-aircraft pilot.

“My husband was always a very fine gentleman,” says Fairhall, now aged 71. “Then suddenly, he became hostile and verbally aggressive; physically too.”

Fairhall’s husband started to lose his sexual inhibitions and couldn’t remember ever losing control. “At dinner parties, he would turn around to the person next to him and, out of the blue, ask them: ‘Do you like sex?’

“I was so embarrassed. It was very awkward for me as I grew up in a family where sex wasn’t discussed. He just suddenly didn’t want to sit with me, talk to me or enjoy the things he used to. Then he’d have long periods where things appeared very normal.”

The GP diagnosed her husband with depression, but Fairhall knew there was more to it than that. Ten years later, after a number of misdiagnoses and an escalation of the situation to ‘catastrophic’, Fairhall was told her husband had frontotemporal dementia – a rare disease impairing a person’s judgement, emotions, speech and movement. He was only 65.

“I knew it was dementia,” she says. “I was certain. I was relieved when we got the diagnosis, but I was also sad.”

Fairhall recently shared her experience of dementia and its associated impact on her marriage at Melbourne’s Let’s Talk About Sex conference in September, hosted by COTA Australia and Alzheimer’s Australia.

“The reason I spoke out about this was not just because of the embarrassment,” says Fairhall, who is now a member of the Alzheimer’s Australia Vic Consumer Advisory Committee. “When the person you love and care about has dementia, they can’t help or control their behaviours. The damage to the brain leaves them disinhibited and confused. For the carer, the loved one – whether it is a woman or a man – it becomes a hidden issue.

“Sexually, things change. We had a normal, healthy sex life and a good, loving relationship before the diagnosis. The medication interfered with that initially and then, because with disinhibitions, sexual matters became obsessive matters.” The confusing thing is, she explains, “the person is still there in body but they are just not in the same body”.

Fairhall’s husband is now living in an aged care facility and is well cared for. She advises anyone caring for a partner with dementia to be “bold” when it comes to intimacy.

“Don’t worry about holding their hands and being close to them if that’s what they were normally like before a diagnosis. My husband was a loving person so he still responds when I put my hand through his hair or show love and gentleness by touching his face or speaking in a tone that’s not harsh but a bit loving. I also lay with him in bed so we still have a bit of skin contact. I’ll either rub his back or hold his hand. That’s our intimacy these days. They may not be able to do things and may not have insight into their condition, but they will still feel love towards their family.

“People think: ‘How dreadful to be dealing with this.’ But actually, we are lucky. We have been given the time that some people don’t have. We can actually make sure he knows we love him.”

Are you caring for a partner with dementia? How have you coped with the impact on your relationship?

    This article has been sponsored by NRMA’s Living Well Navigator.  



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  1. I don’t know I am not demented yet, not that I know about anyway, but since I am single and without a partner I can’t imagine it will change much

  2. I work in aged care and yes those who are affected by frontal lobe dementia are sexually inappropriate however they think that what they are saying or doing is quite normal……very sad as in their pre dementia life they would not have behaved like this and would be quite shocked at themselves. You never know what part of the brain will be affected by dementia and it can take different pathways. Life is very fragile…ENJOY IT !

  3. My father has frontal lobe dementia but he is effected differently. He now has the habit of approaching complete strangers in the street or in cafes. He has also developed an odd sense of humour that can be insensitive eg saying to people with walking frames “don’t speed”. He can also make comments about people that are very unkind and is particularly critical of overweight women. Before dementia he was a kind considerate person. However we know this could be much worse as we know of another man with frontal lobe dementia who also became sexually inappropriate.

  4. such a cruel disease so unkind and frightening for the person and so heartbreaking and cruel to those left behind to see a loved one so utterly confused and desperate.

  5. My husband wrote this sonnet, inspired by the experience of my late mother & father. It’s included in his published book of sonnets. I painted the border: pansies for thought, rosemary for remembrance & forget-me-nots. Jeanne.

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  6. A close friend’s husband became obsessed with online pornography. It has led to the breakup of their marriage but now I wonder if this could be the cause.

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