Those who work with the elderly say that not only are people living longer, healthier lives these days, but many seniors are also keeping busy by, well, getting busy.
“I see clients from puberty through post-menopause, and I have women in their 60s telling me they are now having the best sex of their lives,” said Terry Marley-DeRosier, women’s health care nurse practitioner at the Mabel Wadsworth Center in Bangor. “In fact, I just saw a study out of a British medical journal reporting up to 80 percent of people between the ages of 50 to 80 are sexually active.”
That is certainly good news for members of the aging and active baby boomer generation — but the risky behavior that sometimes comes with it is not. Instances of sexualy transmitted diseases among that demographic are on the rise.
“Freedom from worrying about pregnancy is so liberating for [postmenopausal] women,” DeRosier said. “In the last 10 years, sexually transmitted diseases have doubled in that age group because of that false sense of security.”
These include cases of gonorrhea, chlamydia, the human papilloma virus and syphilis.
“People are living longer and there are more sex-enhancing drugs for older people,” said DeRosier, herself a baby boomer. “We are the generation that ‘invented’ sexual freedom, and a lot of people in that group are newly single due to divorce or widowed and they are getting into new relationships assuming they are safe due to the age group.”
Christina Theriault, a women’s health care nurse practitioner, works with clients at the Family Planning clinic in Fort Kent and is a firm believer in educating sexually active people on the risks associated with unprotected sex — at any age.
“A lot of older people were married to the same person for a number of years,” Theriault said. “If they are newly single, they may be unaware of what [diseases] are out there.”
And knowledge, experts say, is key.
“Age does not protect you,” DeRosier said. “There needs to be the ‘safe sex’ talk with the older population as much as there needs to be one with teenagers.”
In fact, DeRosier said the young people seem to be getting and heeding the safe sex message far better than their elders.
“In this population of people over the age of 50, we have the lowest rate of condom users,” she said. “They only use them 10 to 12 percent of the time [and] the younger people are more tuned into this and use condoms far more frequently.”
Part of that could be, according to Robin Goldberg-Glen, associate professor of social work and co-president of the Sexuality and Aging Consortium at Widener University in Pennsylvania is today’s condoms are not made for the elderly.
“Certainly for some it’s a matter of thinking, ‘I can’t get pregnant, so why bother?’” she said. “But we also don’t have a condom designed for older men who can’t hold an erection long enough to put it on, so it does not get put on properly and then you can have the transmission of a disease.”
It’s also a topic Glen said a lot of people feel squeamish even bringing up.
But there needs to be that conversation between the generations, DeRosier said.
“They need to know how to get and use protection like condoms and oral dams,” she said. “There needs to be education about that [because] a lot of older people will look at you and say, ‘What the hell is an oral dam?’”
An oral — or dental — dam is a thin sheet of latex that acts as a protective barrier in the mouth for people engaging in oral sex.
DeRosier said only through dialog will the perceived stigma of sexualy transmitted diseases among the elderly be removed.
There are various, nonthreatening and nonjudgmental ways to bring up what can be a touchy subject, including using media articles on the topic to start a discussion with an elderly loved one, Glen said.
“Worrying about safe sex and what to do is enough of an obstacle that some elderly say they will just stay single,” DeRosier said.”
That perceived stigma can be hard on older, sexually active people, Glen said.
“There can be all sorts of barriers for these people,” she said. “Condoms are expensive, and try reading the small print on the labels to make sure you are getting the right size. An 85-year-old man is not going to go into the drug store and ask for help.”
Communication is the key, according to Glen. And everyone needs to be in on the conversation from loved ones to health care providers who can then take the next step and ensure their loved one is getting whatever they need to engage in safe sex.
“Doctors need to be asking their [elderly] patients if they are sexually active,” she said. “This needs to be an intake question when people are moving into nursing homes or an assisted living facility.”
As it is, many gynecological screenings are not considered necessary after a woman turns 65, Theriault said. These standards, she said, do not take into account people who are still sexually active.
“This is something the medical profession needs to re-think,” she said.
It also serves as a reminder to be safe about sexual activity, regardless of age.
“You just can’t assume anything,” DeRosier said. “You can’t assume because you and your partner are older, that you are safe.”