For a while now, seniors plus sex has equaled a surefire route to punchlines and nervous giggles. Take, for instance, an episode of Amy Poehler’s old TV show, Parks and Recreation, titled “Sex Education.” In the opening scene, Poehler’s character Leslie Knope sets up the premise of the episode:
Soon, Knope and her team of public servants find themselves giving information about sexual health to an audience full of elderly citizens, which attracts the attention of abstinence advocates, who accuse her of moral depravity. Hilarity ensues. Funny stuff!
Funny, but based on a not-so-funny reality: Baby boomers and other older people are facing rising rates of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), both here in Arizona and nationwide, as well as across the pond in Jolly Old England.
Earlier this year, the Arizona Department of Health Services released data showing an increase in STD rates among people 55 years of age or older. For example, in Maricopa County, this population more than doubled its gonorrhea rate, which climbed from 6.1 cases per 100,000 people in 2012, to 12.7 per 100,000 people in 2014. That’s still much lower than the overall rate for Arizona, which was 97.8 cases per 100,000 people in 2013, but the fact that the rates of gonorrhea and other STDs are spiking among the 55-plus population is alarming nevertheless.
Arizona is a popular retirement destination, and retirement communities and assisted living facilities might make it easier for older people to hook up. Psychology Today pointed to higher densities of retired people as a possible factor in syphilis and chlamydia rates climbing by 87 percent between 2005 and 2009 among Pima and Maricopa county residents 55 and older. In fact, syphilis and chlamydia rates are up among senior citizens across the nation. The New York Times, too, compares nursing homes and assisted living facilities to college campuses: “They cram a lot of similarly aged people together, and when they do, things naturally happen.” Perhaps we should be passing out condoms at retirement homes in addition to the university student union!
The Arizona Daily Star quoted a Scottsdale Mayo Clinic representative, who said that older people might be more susceptible to disease transmission thanks to thinning tissues that can tear more easily, even on the microscopic level, opening the door for bacteria and viruses. For women, menopause may herald an end to fertility — and, thus, the need to worry about pregnancy — but it may also bring the drying or thinning of the vaginal tissues, which can make sex uncomfortable. Dr. Pepper Schwartz, relationship expert for AARP, recommends combating vaginal dryness with lubricant, or to consider estrogen creams under a doctor’s supervision.
Older people are healthier now than they’ve ever been, and their life expectancies are climbing. Many of them are divorced or widowed, and with access to drugs like Viagra, fewer of them are contending with performance issues. Internet-savvy seniors can even find dating websites to help them meet new partners. That’s all well and good, but this older cohort came of age during an era in which sex education was not taught, except perhaps to warn soldiers to stay away from prostitutes. And, in the days before the HIV epidemic, the use of condoms was not normalized. Finally, since post-menopausal women no longer have to worry about unwanted pregnancies, many sexually active seniors just don’t have safer sex on their radars.
Other social factors could include the baby boomers, who came of age during the “free love” era, entering the ranks of senior citizenry, bringing more liberal attitudes toward sex along for the ride. A 2013 Gallup poll found that 56 percent of Americans 55 years of age and older thought that sex between an unmarried man and woman was “morally acceptable” — which is up from just 34 percent in 2001. Younger people are more likely not to have ethical misgivings about sex outside of marriage, and as they age into the 55-and-up population, acceptance will probably expand.
There are several actions seniors (or anyone!) can take to ensure they are protecting their health with each sexual encounter:
- Know your partner’s status: Before engaging in any sexual activity — oral, anal, or vaginal sex, as well as skin-to-skin genital contact — know your partner’s STD status. You can get tested for STDs together, and you can also ask your partner when they were last tested for STDs, how many sexual partners they have had, and if they have ever used IV drugs.
- Learn how to use a condom correctly: Learn the finer points of condom usage to maximize their protective powers. Check the expiration date. Pinch the air out of the tip as it is rolled down the shaft of the penis to reduce risk of breakage. Use them from start to finish. Rubbers aren’t just for the young — they’re for anyone at risk of contracting an STD. If a penis will be involved in your sexual activities, put a condom on it!
- Use lubricant with your condoms: Lube doesn’t just reduce the risk of small tears in the skin, as mentioned above — it reduces friction, which in turn decreases the risk of a broken condom. Make sure that you pair latex condoms with water- or silicon-based lubricant — never an oil-based lubricant, which can degrade latex.
- Don’t be afraid to ask a health care provider for advice: The topic of sex is taboo — not all patients are comfortable bringing it up with their doctors, and not all doctors are comfortable bringing it up with their patients! You can break that cycle by asking a doctor to answer your questions. A physician can also offer guidance on sexual issues such as erectile dysfunction or vaginal dryness.
No matter how old you are, Planned Parenthood health-care providers can answer your questions about sex in a nonjudgmental atmosphere and test you and your partner for STDs. Although Planned Parenthood doesn’t take Medicare, if you are eligible, you should be able to get free STD screenings from a provider that accepts it. Planned Parenthood may also be able to dispense advice about menopause, hormone replacement therapy, safer sex, and managing chronic STDs like herpes or HIV.
Click here to check out other installments of our monthly STD Awareness series!