(Bloomberg) — More than 350 people attended the wedding reception of Donna Lou Young and Henry V. Rayhons in Duncan, Iowa, on Dec. 15, 2007. Family and friends ate pork roast and danced polkas to celebrate the union of a widow and a widower, both in their 70s, who had found unexpected love after the deaths of their long-time spouses.
For the next six-and-a-half years, Henry and Donna Rayhons were inseparable. She sat near him in the state House chamber while he worked as a Republican legislator. He helped with her beekeeping. She rode alongside him in a combine as he harvested corn and soybeans on his 700 acres in northern Iowa. They sang in the choir at Sunday Mass.
“We just loved being together,” Henry Rayhons says.
Today, he’s awaiting trial on a felony charge that he raped Donna at a nursing home where she was living. The Iowa Attorney General’s office says Rayhons had intercourse with his wife when she lacked the mental capacity to consent because she had Alzheimer’s. She died on Aug. 8, four days short of her 79th birthday, of complications from the disease. One week later, Rayhons, 78, was arrested. He pleaded not guilty.
To convict Rayhons, prosecutors must first convince a jury that a sex act occurred in his wife’s room at the Concord Care Center in Garner, Iowa, on May 23. If prosecutors prove that, his guilt or innocence will turn on whether Donna wanted sex or not, and whether her dementia prevented her from making that judgment and communicating her wishes.
The State of Iowa vs. Henry Rayhons offers a rare look into a complex and thinly explored dilemma that will arise with increasing frequency as the 65-and-over population expands and the number of people with dementia grows. It suggests how ill-equipped nursing homes and law enforcement agencies are to deal with the nuances of dementia, especially when sex is involved. The combination of sex and dementia also puts enormous strains on family relationships, which turned out to be a critical element in the Rayhons case. His four children are supporting him. Two of Donna’s three daughters played a role in Rayhons’ investigation. Through their attorney, Philip Garland, the two declined to be interviewed for this story.
Sexual assault laws years ago recognized that a spouse cannot force himself or herself upon the other. Dementia confuses the issue. People with dementia can lose past inhibitions about sex and become aggressive about seeking it. They might be unable to balance a checkbook while they’re perfectly capable of deciding whether they desire a partner’s affections.
Experts in geriatrics say that intimacy — from a hug to a massage to intercourse — can make dementia sufferers feel less lonely and even prolong their lives. Love complicates things further.
By many accounts, Henry and Donna Rayhons were deeply in love. Both their families embraced their marriage. The case has produced no evidence thus far that the couple’s love faded, that Donna failed to recognize her husband or that she asked that he not touch her, said Rayhons’ son Dale Rayhons, a paramedic and the family’s unofficial spokesman.
Based on evidence generated so far, state prosecutors are likely to portray Rayhons as a sex-hungry man who took advantage of a sweet, confused woman who didn’t know what month it was, forgot how to eat a hamburger and lost track of her room.
“Any partner in a marriage has the right to say no,” said Katherine C. Pearson, who teaches and writes about elder law at the Penn State Dickinson School of Law and reviewed the Rayhons case at the request of Bloomberg News. “What we haven’t completely understood is, as in this case, at what point in dementia do you lose the right to say yes?”
In interviews, Rayhons said his life and reputation are already ruined. Shortly before his arrest, he withdrew from the election that probably would have won him his 10th consecutive two-year term representing a northern Iowa district in the state House of Representatives.
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Sitting in his son’s heated garage on a chilly October night, he convulses with sobs recalling the events of recent months. He says he’s most distraught about being kept from Donna during the last weeks of her life.
“My wife just died and you’re charged with something like this because you prayed by her bed,” he says. “It hurts. It really hurts.”
This story was assembled from hundreds of pages of documents filed with Iowa regulators and the Hancock County District Court in Garner as well as interviews with more than two dozen people. Geoff Greenwood, a spokesman for Iowa attorney general Tom Miller, declined to comment or make prosecutors available for interviews.
Henry and Donna
Henry Rayhons is a sturdy, 6-foot-2-inch man whose family has farmed in northern Iowa for more than a century. He graduated in 1954 from the high school in Garner, a town of clapboard homes and 3,100 people about 110 miles north of Des Moines. Rayhons took night classes in farming and never attended college.
He married Marvalyn Carolus in 1959. They had two daughters and two sons who helped them grow crops and raise dairy cows northwest of Garner. Diabetes forced Marvalyn to undergo two kidney transplants and cost her parts of her feet and her vision. At home, Rayhons dressed her wounds and hung IV bottles, his children said.
As Marvalyn’s condition deteriorated in 2006, Rayhons said, “She told me, ‘Don’t stay alone. Find someone to share your life with you.’” After she died that November, he grew despondent. His son Dale, 52, recalls his father saying, “I keep praying for God to just take me. I’m nothing.”
The next summer, Rayhons got to know Donna Lou Young, an elegant woman with an infectious smile and a shock of white-on-silver hair set over her forehead like a tiara. She grew up in Garner, where her parents owned a bakery, and later worked as a secretary at the high school there.
After her husband of 48 years died in 2001, Donna survived on savings, Social Security checks and what she made selling honey from bees her late husband had kept. She loved babies, cookbooks and her garden. Friends and family gobbled up her potato bread, pickles and onion rings.
She and Rayhons began to flirt while singing in the choir at St. Boniface Catholic Church in Garner. “She was always a very well-dressed lady, which I admired,” Rayhons said. “She liked high-heeled shoes.” In August 2007, he asked her to accompany him to the Iowa State Fair. Donna said she’d go if he first went with her to her daughter’s 25th anniversary party.
Not long after, Rayhons told his son Gary Rayhons, 43, that he and Donna were going to wed. “He’s not a very emotional man,” Gary said. “It’s probably only the second time in my life he gave me a hug, he was so happy.”
Henry Huber, then pastor of St. Boniface, dubbed Donna “Smoochie” because she and Rayhons often kissed at the “sign of peace” during Mass.
“They were two good people who were good together,” Huber said.
Children of both Donna and Rayhons helped with the wedding arrangements. St. Boniface was dressed in scarlet poinsettias. The bride wore a white veil. At the reception, Malek’s Fishermen played polkas within the wood-paneled walls of the Duncan Community Ballroom.
Rayhons said he and Donna “danced with our grandchildren until 11 o’clock and we were so tired, we just went home and never thought of what newlyweds are supposed to do.”
They lived in Rayhons’ house in Hayfield before moving to a condo in Garner. Donna became a fixture at the state Capitol in Des Moines, where the part-time legislature meets for about four months each year.
“Her clothes were always immaculate. She was always in a skirt,” said Charity McCauley Andeweg, who clerked for Rayhons. He bought Donna more than a dozen dresses on sale at the Goodnature department store in Garner. “She was so proud that he would go shopping with her,” McCauley Andeweg said. “He treated her like a queen.”
In the summer, they went arm-in-arm to July 4th parades and polka festivals, pork feeds and fish fries. Rayhons got himself a bee suit. “I learned about beekeeping in a real hurry,” he said. He and Donna attended Mass once or twice a week and enjoyed leisurely drives in the flatlands surrounding Garner.
“It was usually hard to find them at home,” said Rayhons’ daughter Carol Juhl, 54.
Four years ago, Donna saw a neurologist for headaches and forgetfulness. He diagnosed her with possible early onset Alzheimer’s. Over the next few years, she began to repeat herself, family and friends say. She left belongings behind. She drove on the wrong side of the road. She put a single sock in her dryer when she meant to do a full load.
Rayhons said he took her driver’s license, unplugged the dryer, and kept her away from the stove.
About 5.2 million people in the U.S. have Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia, the Alzheimer’s Association says. Partly due to the aging of the Baby Boom generation, the association expects the number of those 65 and over with Alzheimer’s to exceed 7 million by 2025, barring medical breakthroughs.
While fatal for every victim, Alzheimer’s experiences vary. A person who lacks mental capacity to fathom a grocery list could be able to choose the television show she wants to watch. Those capabilities can vary from day to day and hour to hour.
“When somebody has dementia, their ability to know is impaired, but it also fluctuates,” said Pearson of the Penn State law school. “It’s not an on-or-off switch. It’s more of a dimmer switch.”
That makes it difficult to measure with precision a sufferer’s ability to make a particular judgment at a particular moment, especially when it comes to the emotionally fraught subject of sex.
Pearson said rape cases involving a spouse with dementia are extremely rare and she couldn’t recall another one in more than 20 years of work on elderly issues.
“This is maybe the last great frontier of questions about capacity and dementia,” she said. “And it’s all tied up with our own personal feelings about sex.”
By early this year, two of Donna Rayhons’ daughters were concerned about their mother’s worsening dementia and the way Rayhons was caring for her. Linda Dunshee, 54, and Suzan Brunes, 52, had heard from a legislator, a lobbyist and other people working in the Capitol that he sometimes left her alone while he was in meetings. They worried she’d wander the hallways or outside on her own, according to their statements to investigators and other court documents.
Brunes, a hospital administrator, and Dunshee, executive director of a non-profit serving people with intellectual disabilities, had talked to Rayhons about putting their mother in a nursing home. He had resisted.
He says now he didn’t want to be separated from her. He says he wanted to get her professional care that would allow her to keep living with him. His son Dale said, “I’m sure there was probably a little bit of denial in it, that things weren’t as bad as they seemed.”
On March 25, Dunshee picked up Donna in Des Moines and took her for lunch at a downtown restaurant, according to testimony Dunshee later gave to a state investigator. Beneath her winter coat and blazer, Donna was wearing a sleep teddy that exposed her breasts, Dunshee told the investigator. In a restaurant bathroom, Donna put her hands in the toilet bowl.
John Boedeker, a family physician in the Garner area, examined Donna and recommended placing her in a nursing home.
‘Donna was gone’
On March 29, Brunes and Dunshee moved their mother into Concord Care Center in Garner, two miles from the condo where Donna and Rayhons lived. Rayhons was aware that Donna might be moving, though he had resisted, according to a log kept by the daughters.
While his wife was moving, Rayhons was attending a legislative forum 30 miles away. “I got home and Donna was gone,” he said, his face flushing red with anger. “I couldn’t talk to the girls. They were the boss.”
Concord Care is a red-brick, one-story building that sits nine blocks from the courthouse where Rayhons is scheduled to be tried. The 66-bed facility is one of more than 50 nursing homes, assisted living centers and other long-term care facilities operated by privately held ABCM Corp. of Hampton, Iowa. Concord Care administrator Holly Brink declined to comment on the Rayhons case. She told investigators that Rayhons had trouble understanding dementia.
On its website, ABCM says its properties embrace a policy of “person-directed care” designed to give each resident a prominent voice in how she or he lives.
Concord Care has no designated unit for dementia sufferers, though staffers try to minimize activity that could agitate them, Brink said. The home doesn’t have a specific policy on sexual matters.
Staff notes portray Donna in her early weeks at the home as pleasant, alert and occasionally forgetful. She initiated conversation with other residents and enjoyed bingo, music and other activities.
Donna had a room to herself where one afternoon a nurse opened the door to find her in bed and Rayhons kneeling in prayer. Brink later told a state investigator that the two held hands and “Henry was more affectionate with Donna than most people were,” an interview summary said.