The idea of seniors and sex is kind of taboo in our culture. Many younger people assume that when you reach a certain age, sex is no longer a driving force and so it doesn’t need to be addressed much. Most older adults, however, can assure you that is not the case. While there might be some slow down or adjustments made in that department, lots of elderly people remain sexually active and have rich and satisfying sex lives well throughout their twilight years (thanks Viagra!).
In the context of a trusted, committed, monogamous relationship, this is wonderful news. However, be it through widowhood, divorce, a break up, infidelity or some other reason you find yourself back in the dating pool or in a nursing home flirtation, some caution is required. I hate to be a buzzkill, but it is essential that older sexually active adults and their caregivers educate themselves about the risks of STDs.
Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are on the rise across all age groups, and seniors are no exception. According to the CDC, combined cases of syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia have reached an all-time high in the United States, and it is considered an epidemic.
The rise in STD rates is particularly alarming in older adults. A recent report found that the diagnosis rate in people over the age of 60 for gonorrhea, herpes simplex, syphilis, chlamydia, hepatitis B and trichomoniasis rose 23 percent between 2014 and 2017, which was more than double the increase rate for the entire population. (Note, HIV rates weren’t included in that study).
Older adults are less likely to consider themselves at risk for contracting an STD. Many never received formal safe sex education when they were younger, and if anything, the whispered talk back in their day was more about preventing unwanted pregnancy than “venereal disease.” Awareness of safe sex and STD prevention became more prevalent in the 1980s when HIV/AIDS crisis hit, and many of today’s seniors were partnered and middle-aged by then so didn’t really think it applied to them. It’s no wonder that people over 60 report the lowest condom usage of any population.
Some elderly adults are embarrassed to discuss their sex lives with their doctor or to ask for an STD test. As a result, they are less likely to have an early diagnosis, and can’t benefit from medications for early stage treatment. Many STDs do not have obvious symptoms, so many seniors do not even realize they are infected until serious health consequences have occurred. Those who are unaware about their own STD status are prone to spread it to unwitting partners, and hence the escalation in rates of infection among this age group.
HIV/AIDS is a particular concern, as early symptoms like fatigue or weight loss are often dismissed as just typical complaints of aging. Doctors are less likely to screen or counsel about HIV testing and therefore it can go undiagnosed, which can lead to its silent spread.
Growing older doesn’t make you any less susceptible to communicable diseases. In fact, quite the opposite. With age, your immune system tends to weaken and you become more prone to infection. Other age-related health issues like heart disease or diabetes can also compound matters.
So what can we do about this senior STD crisis? Education is key. The elderly generation should be getting the same basic information as the younger generations. They must learn about how STDs are transmitted, how transmission can be prevented, and what their short- and long-term effects are. American seniors should be made aware that Medicare provides free STD screenings and low-cost treatment should the test results be positive. Health care providers need to step up and address the senior STD issue by including questions about sexual activity in their elderly patient assessments. And why not distribute condoms at senior living facilities or community centers where older adults congregate? There’s no value in burying our heads in the sand about this.
If you are the sexually active senior in question, you owe yourself and your partner(s) the respect of being responsible with your sexual health. If it’s a parent or grandparent you’re concerned about, push past your squeamishness on the topic and make sure they are well informed and practicing the prevention guidelines. If there’s one thing more awkward than talking about senior STDs, it’s is actually actually having one.