The Current

Blurred Lines: Sexual consent for people with dementia

When a wife, or a husband, develops dementia... is consensual sex possible? It's a question in the U.S. courts right now, where Henry Rayhons, is facing charges of rape. And it's a question that's going to be at large in the years to come, as the number of Canadians living with dementia, moves into the millions.
Henry Rayhons is standing trial for sexually assaulting his wife. The nursing home staff caring for Rayhons' wife, Donna Lou Rayhons, told Henry that his wife of seven years was no longer mentally capable of legally consenting to have sex. (AP Photo/The Globe Gazette, Jeff Heinz)

"This is not a case about consent.  It's a case about capacity.  Whether a twelve year old desires to have sex isn't relevant. Whether a passed out intoxicated person desires to have sex is irrelevant.  And the same is true in this case." -  Iowa state prosecutor, at a recent pre-trial hearing for a case about sexual consent, involving a senior citizen, with dementia.

The accused is Henry Rayhons, someone well known in Iowa, as a former state legislator. He's now facing a charge of rape, for allegedly having sex with his wife in a care-home at a point in her life when, prosecutors say, her mental state left her incapable of giving consent.

The trial's got underway this week, but it's opened up some important questions about sexual relations after a diagnosis of dementia. The discussions it's prompting may be difficult, but they're important ones to begin having now.

In Canada, there are currently some three-quarters-of-a-million people living with Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia.

By the year 2031, that figure is expected to increase to as much as 1.4 million. And, of course, as we grow old, and even as our faculties deteriorate, sexuality never disappears as an aspect of life.

Mary Schulz is the director of education for the Alzheimer Society of Canada. 

Judith Wahl is a lawyer and Executive Director at the community-based legal clinic, Advocacy Centre for the Elderly.

Dr. Michael Gordon is the medical program director of palliative care, and co-director of medical ethics at Baycrest hospital in Toronto, and a professor of Medicine at the University of Toronto

Is this an issue that you, or your family, is dealing with? If so, we hope you'll share your stories with us.

You can email us through our website. Tweet us @thecurrentcbc. Or comment through our Facebook page.

And check out our special in-depth program on Demenitia from last season, "Diagnosis Dementia."

This segment was produced by The Current's Ines Colabrese and Samira Moyheddin.