diagnosing the dirty old man

This essay was previously published in a somewhat different form on 
Cognoscenti.wbur.org on April 22, 2015.


The stock character of the dirty old man dates at least from the Romans and is a comic staple today; but, when your own father becomes that character, it’s no joke. If it’s someone you’ve always loved and admired, so much the worse; your most basic understanding of him may be challenged. When my 88-year old father, a retired Manhattan dentist, a thoughtful, ethical man, morphed into a skirt-chaser, I thought an unsavory, hidden part of his character had been revealed. This distressing notion persisted for the fifteen years after his death, until now.

My father’s new guise appeared shortly after my mother’s death, when he asked for my help with a plan for his new single life: to hire a housekeeper-with-privileges. He had no interest in the lovely widows at his golf club nor in the blind dates his friends arranged. He was bent on paying someone to provide companionship and sex. This was a sharp turn for the lifelong feminist and faithful husband I’d always taken him to be.

Talking to him only increased my dismay. Avoiding more emotional tacks, I argued the illegality of his scheme. “What about geishas?” my father countered. “Other cultures have arrangements. Why are you such a prude?” I reminded him of his support for Anita Hill, during Clarence Thomas’s sex harassment hearings, to no avail. I’d assumed he was past caring what anyone thought, but here he was disowning what he himself had always thought.

Still, he needed a housekeeper, so I placed ads and interviewed applicants, fearing I might be procuring for him. For the first three years, he refused to consider anyone he couldn’t pass off as a date and went behind my back to hire a string of disastrous misfits: an Argentine doctor/dog-sitter, a sour widow he nursed through a face life, an incoherent drug addict with cats. Finally, we found a candidate we agreed on: a lovely Mexican woman, with a black belt in karate. The attentions she drew from other men nearly drove him mad, but she stuck it out for two years, fighting him off until the end. The last year, my father gave up golf and became more self-centered and preoccupied with his health, but he maintained his interest in politics, his regular bridge game, his weekly shuttle to and from Westchester: that is, he seemed himself. In the sexual arena, however, he remained a disturbing enigma.

Still bothered by the memory all these years later, I recently looked online, but a search brought up nothing. On Wikipedia, “Inappropriate sexual behavior in the elderly” prompted the message “the page does not exist.” On Google, it brought up links to sex addiction and to hypersexual disorder in nursing homes, where patients with dementia may masturbate publicly or force themselves on other patients: a world away from my father’s behavior. Blogs with postings about sexually obsessed parents advised accepting the normality of elder sex or sitting the parent down and “giving him a talking to.” What was missing was any explanation for inappropriate behavior in otherwise intact elders and any suggestion that the situation merited concern.

How could the internet not reference a syndrome I knew to be common? Five friends had reported similarly startling, isolated changes of a sexual nature in a parent: a mother whose speech coarsened, a father-in-law who made a pass; a father who groped the caretaker; a mother who was too intimate with a date in front of her children; a father who tried to set up house with a prostitute. But the most persuasive evidence for the prevalence of the behavior is that the dirty old man is a stereotype, because he’s so familiar. Could it be that lechery in the elderly is such a given as to be not worth mentioning?

From the blogs, I could see how we rationalize the behavior: boys will be boys; the aged naturally covet youth and beauty; why wouldn’t they want to relive youthful exploits before it’s too late? I could blame my father’s metamorphosis on loneliness following the end of a 65-year marriage or on a natural wish for intimacy, combined with anxiety about navigating a new relationship. None of these explanations convinced me: there was just no reconciling the principled parent I’d loved with the exploitative womanizer who’d emerged at the end of his life.

Having exhausted the other search options, I finally read straight through a dementia-sex link and found the answers I’d been seeking. All my father’s symptoms were listed under frontal lobe dementia: a loss of sexual inhibition, of judgment, of a sense of appropriate behavior. His bizarre conduct was not a matter of character, as I’d feared, but of brain atrophy. And what is more, the stock character of the lecherous old man (or woman) must exist because the elderly brain is so susceptible to this kind of breakdown.

What gerontologists know, the general public doesn’t yet. Since my father didn’t have the memory loss and confusion associated with dementia, the diagnosis never crossed my mind. But the more I thought about it, the more I found earlier, probable clues. Changes I’d passed off as “normal” aging—his disinterest in me and my family, a general loss of empathy, bitter criticisms of old friends—were also out of character, if not as strikingly so as the housekeeper plan. No doubt the shock of losing a lifelong companion had undermined my father’s ability to cope and thus exposed his hidden cerebral loss.

Why was something so obvious so hard to figure out? I don’t think it was denial. I might not have liked to think my father had dementia, but I’d much rather a neurological than a chacterological explanation. Perhaps what kept me from pushing for an answer at the time was the taboo nature of a parent’s sexuality. And, then, the stereotype was right there to seize on, one that converted a distressing image into a familiar, farcical one. As a result, I didn’t recognize a medical condition that was staring me in the face.

And perhaps what I didn’t do, society in general doesn’t do. We snicker at the stories of nursing home flashers and roll our eyes at fathers who grope their caretakers. Turning elder lust into a dirty joke—which we’ve done for at least two thousand years—defuses our horror at a parent’s loss of dignity but prevents our seeing the behavior for the neurological symptom it is.

Who do we assume the dirty old man was before he aged into an obnoxious fool? A lifelong Don Juan? We never think he might be our genteel dentist who was simply losing his mind.



8 Responses

  • Diana Birchall // // Reply

    What a succinct, perfect essay. We follow you on your confused, pained, anxious journey as you grope for answers, seek – and find. And are able to sum up with devastating new knowledge and power: the genteel dentist who was simply losing his mind. Really good, and a wonderful lesson in the acquiring of wisdom, hard won, fought for, and worthwhile.

  • Sylvia // // Reply

    The same thing happened to my father-in-law whom we cared for in our house for three years until it was too difficult. While we were caring for him, we didn’t especially want him overdosed with medication but we found that giving him a little more made him easier to deal with, so that we could still have him in our house. He had a caregiver who could handle his remarks and actions but she also appreciated the medication.

  • Andy Rose // // Reply

    This essay is beautiful. The writing is exquisite, the theme is important for all of us, the development leads us ever so delicately to new insights. Thank you so very much for sharing!

  • Karen Kalkstein // // Reply

    Oh THANK YOU for this, Elizabeth! I realize my
    mother had some of these symptoms – not sex but loss of any interest in my father, loss of empathy, terrible criticism of old friends and relatives, meanness to some of her caregivers.
    She had been a proper, refined lady.

  • susan // // Reply

    That “the page does not exist” on Wikipedia says it all. Is this topic so prurient that Wikipedia daren’t take it on? Thanks for linking the behavior and the pathology. We, of sound mind, need reminders to see what is in front of us.

  • beth // // Reply

    You are brilliant!!!!! Thank you for this article so now I too can have a different lens to see my aging parents and can explain them to others.

  • Ginna Vogt // // Reply

    Such a beautifully written and intelligent essay. I was visiting my 89 year old uncle yesterday, and your essay echoes how painful it is to witness the loss of someone’s very self. How extraordinary that our bodies can break down in a way that alters our very personhood, the elements that make us who we are uniquely. And in your father’s case the impact was so selective, disguising its actual cause. This is a little essay with a big punch, that reveals knowledge of significance to all of us in an elegant “communication from the front” of life.

  • Corinne Adler // // Reply

    Having recently talked to you about the artist, Rubens among others, and their depiction of lecherous older men and younger women, it was great to see how your interest flowed into this wonderful essay of your father. It was extremely enlightening and beautifully written.

Leave a Reply