One evening, my 84-year-old mother went to the dining hall of her senior residence and noticed a lanky man with a white mane. He was sitting all alone at one of the tables. “Are you waiting for anyone?” she asked him sweetly. 

Over the next few hours, I received a flurry of photo texts from my mother’s caregiver, Maria. Two figures leaning into one another at the dining table. The two of them walking down a garden path in dappled twilight. And later, their heads bowed together, silhouetted against the glow of a movie screen in the facility’s small theater. A romance had blossomed.

My father had passed away two years before, and my mother had been craving male attention ever since. David quickly became my mother’s first new boyfriend in more than 50 years. 

In those first days, my mother talked a lot about how much she loved to kiss David. They had found a secret spot where they could smooch. There turned out to be other upsides. Within a week, my mother, who has Parkinson’s, suddenly seemed sharper. Her sentences were more linear and connected to the world around her, and her memory was more lucid. She walked with greater confidence, too, each step forward like a tiny conquest rather than a timid retreat. The difference even showed up on a cognitive test administered by her neurologist—it was as though six months of dramatic cognitive decline had been erased, she said. 

Was romance the medicine my mom really needed? Since her diagnosis in 2014, it had been hard not to see the emotional component in the progression of her condition. Her cognition declined sharply after my father’s death, and again when she moved out of her home into a retirement community in 2021. 

Yet love, as it often does, brought thorns as well as roses. I soon found out that David encouraged my mother to refuse her meds and to ditch her walker, which she needs for balance. He urged her to get rid of her Foley catheter so that they could have sex. He sometimes barked at her to hurry up or made fun of other residents with ailments and disabilities, an attitude that led my mother to have anxiety attacks and debilitating stomach pains. 

David also insulted the caregivers and made them wait outside my mother’s room when he visited. I began trying to set some boundaries with him, for her safety, but while David made promises, he ignored every one of them. Eventually, he was called out by the resident services manager and required to stop visiting my mother’s apartment. He promptly dropped contact with her. 

Within a week, it was as if my mother’s life force had been strangled out of her. She couldn’t get out of bed or her chair without a lot of help. She needed a wheelchair to travel any distance. Her voice became a whisper. The cause was obvious, but I had a hard time understanding how heartbreak could lead to such a profound response. The neurologist was puzzled by her sudden regression until I mentioned the saga of the boyfriend. “Ah,” she said, her eyes getting big. “When we get to this age, the connection between the emotional and the physical can be dramatic.” 

Over the following month, my mother slowly regained her strength and her cognition recovered somewhat. But the effects of that first fire, which lit her up and put her in such good health, have not returned. 

I had not expected my mother’s romantic life to play a part in my adult caregiving, but it is just one more wrinkle in the reversal of our roles. One day I decided to ask her: Were those kisses in their hidden nook worth all the trouble? She tells me that, overall, she believes she is better off without David, but she has no regrets.