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What Happens to Intimacy When the Alzheimer’s or Dementia Sufferer is Your Spouse

Posted Oct 27 2010 8:15pm

Caring for a spouse who has Dementia is a particularly difficult and painful experience.

If a spouse has Dementia or Alzheimer’s it is difficult to watch their slow decline and see intimate memories shared over many years seemingly disappear. When a couple lives together for a long time, a special intimacy evolves . They share the same hopes, dreams, desires, and plans for the future. Over time, their familiarity creates such a bond that they often finish each other’s sentences. They’ve also learned to meet each others lifelong need to be loved and touched in most intimate ways.

So while caring for a parent, or other relative with dementia may be a struggle and painful experience, there isn’t the same loss of intimacy that occurs with the mental decline of a spouse. While caring for a chronically ill person, there is never enough time, energy or money to go around which can cause duress. But, to lose the comfort of intimacy, loving touches that are shared everyday, can feel devastating.

Some people hesitate to breech the subject since it may seem insensitive considering the depth of illness by the spouses dementia. Yet, sexuality is a natural part of adulthood and it’s totally natural for the caring spouse to wonder what will happen to that part of their relationship.

Sometimes, the intimate relationship will not change during the progression of dementia by one partner. Don’t expect it to happen– simply be aware that it may happen. Occasionally, with a dementing illness the spouse may become more loving than they had been previously. There is simply no way to predict how a person with a dementing illness will react to all the changes in their thinking. So keep in mind that sometimes the loss of intimacy does not occur.

When loss of intimacy does occur, sadly, there is so much embarrassment about discussing intimacy or sexuality, especially for older couples, that there is seldom anyone the caregiver spouse can turn to. You might seek out your family physician but often, even the doctor will hesitate to discuss such a topic where a dementing illness is concerned. This can leave the spouse of the dementia patient feeling totally alone.

Yet, your family physician should be able to discuss the nature of your spouse’s brain damage and how it will affect sexuality and other aspects of their behavior. There are no easy answers to the issue but it does help to understand that some negative behaviors by the dementing spouse are due to brain damage, not a change of their feelings toward the loved one.

A few problems that can occur due to a spouse’s impairment:

  • The fatigue of caring for a chronically ill spouse may leave you feeling uninterested
  • Your spouse may be depressed or moody about their condition and feel uninterested
  • Sometimes sexual behaviors may change in the spouse with a dementing illness, that are difficult for the partner to accept
  • It may feel too heartbreaking when the dementing spouse no longer remembers your name, or intimate gestures from the past
  • Sometimes, a previously affectionate person will no longer like holding or caressing or touching after the progression of the dementing illness. This is clearly due to brain damage and not any change in their feelings toward their spouse

There are no easy answers or medications that help most of these issues. If you’re the spouse of a person with dementia, you may want to seek counseling from a reputable Counselor who is familiar with the behaviors of brain damage. Especially, choose a counselor who has experience with sexual concerns of handicapped people and dementing illnesses. He should also be aware of his own feelings about sexual activity between elderly or handicapped people. Here also, your family physician may be able to recommend a counselor. If you belong to a group forum for spouse’s of Alzheimer’s or Dementia sufferers, other members may also recommend a counselor.

This may be one of the more difficult issues that you will face during a spouse’s dementing illness. As with other changes in behavior, you can find a way to adjust and adapt to this as well.

First and foremost, though, you must take care of yourself. That means plenty of rest and time-off. Spend time alone, to think and rejuvenate. Spend time with good friends, to laugh and share the pleasures of life. And spend time with a good counselor or therapist or support group, to learn all the ways of staying happy and hopeful under duress.

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