The words “rape” and “sexual assault” are powerful under any circumstances. When the alleged victim is a patient in a nursing home suffering through the late stages Alzheimer’s disease, the apparent crime takes on a certain kind of perverse nature. Add to this picture a perpetrator who is a former state senator, and even the most open-minded of us is ready to abandon the tenet “innocent until proven guilty.”
The accused was Henry Rayhons, a 78-year-old retired Iowa state legislator. The supposed victim was his wife, Donna. Henry and Donna, widower and widow, met singing in a church choir, fell in love, and were married in 2007. According to Rayhons, he treated Donna like a queen, and she treated him like a king. After Donna was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s she was moved from the home she shared with Henry to a nursing home by her daughters, where she died last August. For the duration of their short courtship and marriage, Henry and Donna were a devoted couple that loved their time together. The case against Rayons was made after Donna’s death. He was acquitted in late April of this year.
The image of a loving, elderly couple having intimate relations is in stark contrast to the images conjured by the words “rape” and “sexual assault.” Yet, a court and a jury were assembled to judge whether Henry Rayhons should serve up to ten years in prison for assaulting Donna. The case against Rayhons was based on the fact that due to her advanced dementia, she had been deemed by the staff at the nursing home in which she resided unable to consent to sexual relations. Rayhons had been informed of Donna’s new status as unable to consent in writing by her doctors before the alleged rape occurred.
The allegations were made by Donna’s roommate who heard noises from behind the curtain that separated their beds while Rayhons was visiting Donna that she thought sounded sexual in nature. The charge led to the administering of a rape kit to Donna at a local hospital, microscopic examination of her sheets to look for Henry’s semen, reviews of footage of videos of Henry’s visits, grueling interrogation of Henry while he mourned the death of his wife, and long hours of court time. In his defense, Rayhons stated that the sounds that Donna’s roommate heard were those of his re-arranging her bed so that she could sleep with her head at the foot of the bed. He did not deny prior intimacies with his wife, but stipulated that he had never had intercourse with her in the nursing home. After he was told that his wife could not give consent, he testified that he did not have sexual contact with her. On the night in question, Rayhons stated that they had just held hands and prayed.
The legal basis for the case was that Iowa’s state law allows rape charges to be pressed against spouses, making ability to consent a critical issue. In addition, Iowa statute prohibits sex with a person who has been diagnosed with a “mental defect,” though the terms of this diagnosis is not specifically defines. This determination had been made based on cognitive testing which showed that her impairment had reached a certain level; for example, she could not repeat the words “blue” or “sock.”
This case has been criticized by many, both in the legal profession and outside of it, as having overstepped the intention of the law and the well-deserved privacy of what appeared to be a devout and mutually adoring elderly couple. Others supported the charges, challenging a man’s right to violate an incapacitated woman. Most notable among these supporters were Donna Rayhon’s adult daughters.
According to Gayle Doll, director of the Center on Aging at Kansas State University, part of the reason behind the lack of clear guidelines in this case is that younger people do not want to think about the sexual needs and desires of the elderly. However, current research shows with increasing frequency that older people still want and need sexual contact although other capacities may have declined. In fact, Rayhons stated that Donna had initiated the sexual contact that they did have in the nursing home, which he said consisted of her reaching into his pants and fondling him. Doll also confirms that people with dementia can also express discomfort or distaste. Staff at the nursing home reported that Donna was always welcoming of physical contact, and that she brightened up and welcomed Henry warmly when he visited.
As the population of elderly people increases, issues concerning the law and sexual conduct will more frequently be of issue. As more and more people join the status of the aged, sexual relations will also be viewed with less disgust by this new majority of the population. Hopefully, the legal profession will reflect these changes in demographics and views of sexuality in new and more explicit laws. Clearer lines must be drawn between the need for human interaction, physical intimacy, and sexual contact, and abuse in these cases. In this case, the people found that Donna was not assaulted, suggesting that the true abuse was rendered by the legal system.
How Rayhons Case Could Change Elders' Sex Rights. Des Moines Register, April 23, 2015.