Sally loves her boyfriend Albert’s hair. She loves his face and his body, too, but she keeps coming back to the hair. It is great hair, thick and luxuriant and combed back from his face in little waves that puff out here and there. Still, when they first met, Sally wasn’t always sure Al was right for her. She thought, Albert is good-looking, but he’s too loud and boisterous for me. His voice would carry across the entire dining room.
For his part, Al noticed Sally right away. He didn’t sit with her at meals, but he got in the habit of stopping by her table, where he would stand and chat with the ladies seated around it. Then he joined the poker game she played every night and saw how other men flirted with her over their cards. Still, he kept his cool and waited patiently. “I used to say, ‘See you at the game,’ and that’s all. I never made a play at her.” Eventually, his slow-burn approach had the desired effect.
“He’s so handsome,” Sally now coos. We’re in the Large Activities Room of Flushing House—an independent-living facility in Queens, with a population just over 300—and despite the game of volleyball going on behind them in which fifteen or so seated residents bat a balloon back and forth over a low net, Al and Sally have scooted their chairs close together, and their hands are like moths, constantly flittering over the armrests and toward each other. “He is a handsome man for 89. Look at that hair.” Sally runs her fingers through it.
“And the mustache? You don’t like the mustache?” asks Al.
“I love the mustache. You know that, Albert.”
“You’re the prettiest girl here, Sally. The prettiest woman here.”
“I’m 90 years old! The prettiest girl here?” Sally laughs at the thought, and yet her hand reaches up to smooth her peach-tinted bob.
By Flushing House standards, Sally and Al took things at a glacial pace. So did Kitty and David, who had been at Flushing House together for around a year before they started dating, though she’d had a tendency to fall asleep sitting next to him in the lobby with her head resting on his shoulder. (“She came after me” is how he explains it. “It may be true,” she responds.) Herb and Henrietta met in the hallway shortly after she moved in four doors down from him, and she says, “He didn’t give me a chance to look for anybody else.” Tony and Alice became “companions” after dancing together at the New Year’s Eve party just a few months after he became a resident.
This last coupling was a particular disappointment to a number of the single women. Tony has a twinkly, Frank Sinatra vibe. He walks without a cane. He dances with panache. But while Tony will amiably two-step with anyone, his real attentions are directed at Alice, for reasons even he can’t articulate. (“It just grows, I guess.”) She’s the one he takes on walks, the one whose hand he holds, the one he cares for ever since her memory started to slip—and the one whom he might do a few more intimate things with, though as a rule he stays tight-lipped on that particular subject.
Al decidedly doesn’t. “I’m 89, but I’ve still got that zing.” Along with chewing gum and sugar pills, he keeps Viagra in a plastic bag in the breast pocket of his shirt. “I get the best from the V.A.,” he tells me, fingering the blue tablet. “They’re better now than ever. They get me crazy … You know, sex isn’t everything, but it has a lot to do with it. An awful lot to do with it. That’s three quarters of your battle won.” And it’s a battle he won with Sally, even though she was the one to initiate the romance, following him home one night from poker. “She made a right turn. I asked, ‘Where are you going?’ She said, ‘To your apartment.’ And that was it.”
Traditionally, nursing homes don’t encourage sex. Not only do many, including Flushing House, have religious affiliations to contend with, but there’s also the fact that the people footing the bill are often children and grandchildren not thrilled to imagine their forebears shacking up with someone new. Then there’s the fear of sexually transmitted diseases, which, owing in part to Viagra, are famously on the rise among the geriatric population. As Al puts it, “Sex takes a little longer now, but it’s wonderful for the woman. I can go on. You know?”
In response to the rising STD rate, Flushing House has invited the Visiting Nurse Service of New York to come in and lead two sex-ed programs: one for the men and one for the women. “They can’t get them to talk if they do it together,” Katie, the activities leader, says of her clients. “They just don’t think about [STDs], because in their day and age, they didn’t.”