Valentine’s Day is right around the corner and Cupid is shooting his arrows all around, including Senior Community Centers, where seniors are still dating, being social and being active.
Christine Holcomb, RN, Senior Community Centers lead nurse, she says "Just because you're 60 or 80 doesn't mean you don't date anymore; it just changes the dynamics." That's why it's important for seniors to have "the talk" with a trusted health care professional or family member to understand the issues surrounding safer sex.
This is not commonly discussed about or among this population. New research in the British Medical Journal found 80 percent of 50-to-90-year-olds are sexually active. Along with this increase, researchers have also seen a rise in sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) among seniors.
At an age when most expect one’s sexual drive to be waning and the opportunity to transmit STDs to decrease, aging Baby Boomers are once again breaking stereotypes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from 2006 to 2010 reported cases of STDs in people ages 55 and up increased dramatically. Many seniors are dating for the first time in 40 or 50 years (typically widows/widowers). Sexually transmitted diseases were not discussed and preventive methods such as condoms didn’t exist when they were younger.
Along with traditional STDs, there is also an increase in HIV/AIDS among older adults. Heterosexual transmission in men over 50 is up 94 percent and the rate has doubled in women since 1991. Eleven percent of all new AIDS cases are in people over the age of 50, rising faster than in people under 40. In fact, HIV/AIDS is fast becoming the most common STD among the senior population.
There are many factors driving the rise of STDs in seniors. Americans are living longer, healthier lives. Medications such as Viagra are enhancing the ability to have sex later in life. Easier access to the Internet enables many seniors to go online to look for love and companionship. Post-menopausal women who are no longer at risk of getting pregnant are having more sex. In general, Baby Boomers who grew up during the free love of the 1960s have a more open, sexual attitude.
However, what most of these older adults missed out on was the safe-sex message younger generations are receiving. Seniors may not be as cautious when it comes to sex and are not taking steps to prevent STD transmission. In fact, a 2010 study from Massachusetts General Hospital found men over 50 are six times less likely to use a condom than men in their 20s.
As a result of the increase of STDs among seniors, Medicare is considering providing coverage for STD screenings. In March 2012, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid announced it was considering adding STD exams to the national health-insurance program, which already pays for HIV screenings.
With Valentine’s Day approaching, it is important to remember that safe sex should be practiced at all ages. Here are four tips to help seniors protect themselves in the bedroom:
• Know Your Partner. Before engaging in any sexual relationship, you should know your partner’s sexual history and let each other know if you have ever been tested for STDs, what the test results were, and if either of you have participated in illegal drug use. HIV/AIDS can be transmitted via hypodermic needle.
• Get Tested Together. The best way to protect yourself and your partner is for the two of you to get tested for HIV and other STDs before you start having sex.
• Use a Condom. Until you are in a committed relationship and know each other’s status and history, make certain to use a condom every time you have sex.
• Talk to Your Doctor. If you have additional questions regarding sex and how to protect yourself, consult with your health care provider.
If you are a child of a senior who is engaging in sex, consider having “the talk.” Talking with seniors about how sex can be more dangerous today is essential for their own health. If having a talk is out of your comfort zone, give your parent a medical brochure or send them a link to an authoritative website with more information, such as the American Geriatrics website. Often these resources are more credible in a senior’s eyes because they are coming from a medical professional.
Sex is a healthy part of aging. When seniors protect themselves from STDs, they can continue living a long, active life and they can enjoy more Valentine’s Days in their future.
Paul Downey is the president and CEO of Senior Community Centers, a nonprofit agency dedicated to increasing the quality of life for San Diego seniors living in poverty. Learn more at servingseniors.org.