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'Dirty Old Man': What If It's Not A Cultural Trope, But A Gentleman Losing His Mind?

Turning elder lust into a dirty joke, which we’ve done for at least 2,000 years, defuses our horror at a parent’s loss of dignity but prevents our seeing the behavior for the neurological symptom it is: dementia. (Zuerichs Strassen/flickr)
Turning elder lust into a dirty joke, which we’ve done for at least 2,000 years, defuses our horror at a parent’s loss of dignity but prevents our seeing the behavior for the neurological symptom it is: dementia. (Zuerichs Strassen/flickr)
This article is more than 6 years old.

The stock character of the dirty old man dates at least from the Romans and is a comic staple today. When your own father becomes that character, however, 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 15 years after his death, until now.

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.

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; 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?”

Still, he needed a housekeeper, so I placed ads and interviewed applicants, fearing what 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. 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 preoccupied with his health, but he maintained his interest in politics and his regular bridge game. 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 looked online for answers. 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. That was a world away from my father’s behavior.

Five friends had reported similarly startling, isolated changes of a sexual nature in a parent. So, how could the Internet not reference a syndrome that was, apparently, common? More important, the dirty old man is a stereotype because he’s so familiar. Could lechery in the elderly be such a given as to be not worth mentioning?

We rationalize the syndrome: Boys will be boys. The aged naturally covet youth and beauty. I could blame my father’s metamorphosis on loneliness following the end of a 65-year marriage and a natural wish for intimacy, combined with anxiety about navigating a new relationship. None of these explanations convinced me, however. There was just no reconciling the principled parent I'd loved with the roué who'd expected each new hire to provide sex along with light meals and driving.

Finally, a dementia-sex link gave 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, but of brain atrophy. And what is more, the dirty old man (or woman) stereotype 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. Why was something so obvious so hard to figure out?

I don’t think it was denial. I’d have much preferred a neurological explanation than believe I'd misread my father's character. 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.

His bizarre conduct was not a matter of character, but of brain atrophy.

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 2,000 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 have been our genteel dentist who was simply losing his mind.

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Elizabeth Marcus Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Elizabeth Marcus is a writer and former architect.

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