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Barb DePree MD
Single? Sexual? Be safe
Love & Sex
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Recently, a friend and her sister visited a retirement community in our neighborhood. They chatted up several residents, including the sweet, 90-year-old widower who’d lost his beloved wife some months before. When they turned to leave, he asked the sister for her phone number. Since she is 50 and married, they laughed it off. Not long after, they heard that their elderly Don Juan had found himself a girlfriend in a nearby senior living community and was visiting her regularly.

The anecdote is cute, but it also points to a larger reality. We are never too old to enjoy sex—that’s the entire premise of MiddlesexMD—but somewhere on the road to the golden years, single seniors have thrown youthful caution to the winds when it comes to safe sex. The result is that sexually transmitted infections (STIs), such as Chlamydia and syphilis, are spreading more quickly among people over 55 than among any other age group except 20-24 year olds, according to a 2010 report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Even more alarming—one in four people with HIV/AIDS is over 50. In the Sunbelt, where large communities of seniors live, the rates of increase are off the charts: In two counties in Arizona cases of syphilis and Chlamydia among those over 55 rose 87 percent between 2005 and 2009; in central Florida, the increase was 71 percent, according to an article in Psychology Today. News reports use words like “epidemic” and “skyrocketing” to describe these increases. Medicare has begun offering free testing for STIs, but most (95 percent) of seniors remain unscreened.

What the heck is going on here? What happened to all those lectures in responsibility and self-control we subjected our kids to? What seems to be happening is that we are, luckily, more long-lived and healthier than our forebears. We are also newly empowered with drugs to maintain erections for men and to make sex more comfortable and enjoyable for women. All the years of hard work, career-building, and childrearing are in the rearview mirror. Many of us find ourselves alone and treading tentatively back into this brave, new world of sex and dating. Add to this the sometimes freewheeling life in retirement communities (some of which are the size of small cities), which create hotbeds (no pun intended) of people of similar age and background—kind of like a college dorm.

Trouble is, unlike kids in a dorm, seniors don’t have to worry about pregnancy and aren’t nearly as well-informed about the risks of unprotected sex. Condom use for those over 60 is the lowest for any age group (6 percent vs. 40 percent for college-age males). And condoms, in case you’ve forgotten, provide the only dependable protection against STIs, and even they aren’t effective against every sexually transmitted bug.

Also unlike their much younger counterparts, older folks have a less robust immune system, so the chances of catching and spreading infections are higher. Plus, many STIs are asymptomatic, so the person doesn’t know he or she is infected—and that the STI is degrading the immune system even further. Finally, doctors rarely think to ask Grandpa about his sex life in the normal course of an exam, even if he has classic symptoms of an STI. All this adds up to a lively Petri dish of bugs circulating around the singles scene. Yet, prevention is so easy, and the cost of ignorance or of ignoring common-sense precautions is high.

So, ladies, even if the prospective partner is someone you’ve known all your life, don’t assume you’re familiar with the intimate details of his sexual forays. Others have walked this path before—and are paying the price. Jane Fowler, 71, and founder of HIV Wisdom for Older Women, was infected with HIV by just such a friend when she was 55 and now advocates for more information and support for older women with AIDS. I’d suggest that if you’re dating, stick a couple condoms in your purse right with the lipstick. And get yourself tested if you’ve ever had unprotected sex. The rule of thumb these days—better safe than sorry.

Your Questions about Senior Sex
Love & Sex
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When I give a talk about senior sex, my favorite part is answering your questions. I feel both proud and humble that you trust me (and the audience) enough to voice your concerns.

I’ve been traveling to tell people about my new book, Naked at Our Age: Talking Out Loud About Senior Sex and talking at bookstores, sexuality shops, a senior center, a restaurant, and my 50th high school reunion (!) about the myths and realities of older age sexuality. Here are some of the most frequent questions and topics you’ve been sharing:

  • The #1 question from partnered seniors is how to revive a dull , infrequent, or nonexistent sex life. I talk about scheduling sex and understanding that at our age, desire often follows physiological arousal rather than the other way around. In other words, getting started with touching and kissing will get you in the mood after your body starts responding — don’t wait to be in the mood.
  • Single seniors ask about the importance of safe sex, hoping (from the wording of your questions and the looks on your faces) that I’ll tell you we probably don’t need condoms at our age. I tell you the opposite of that — yes, we need to use condoms, and we should do so whether someone tells us his or her health history or not. The fastest growing population for new HIV infections is the over 50 age group.
  • Women whose partners experience erectile difficulties often don’t understand what’s going on (“Is it because I don’t attract him any more?”) or what to do to keep the sensuality going in the relationship (“Isn’t it cruel teasing if I want to touch and be touched?”).
  • Both men and women scoff at the idea of sex toys until I tell them why a well-placed vibrator can mean the difference between orgasm or not.


Is it any surprise that that one place people were reluctant to ask questions was my high school reunion? It’s understandable — we were with people we hadn’t seen since we were 17 and our main sex problem was how to hide our activities from our parents! When I saw that my classmates were uneasy about asking questions, I said, “If you’d rather talk to me privately, I’ll be giving consultations in the corner.”

For the rest of the weekend, people came up to me to request their “consultation in the corner”!

Your comments are welcome. If you were in my audience, what question do you hope I’d answer? If you’re brave, include the answer you think I’d give!

trips for single seniors
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