With baby boomers set to reshape old age, just as they did youth and middle age, increasing rates of sexually transmitted diseases or STDs are emerging as the downside of a senior’s sexual revolution.
The Beth Abraham Family of Health Services wants to make sure that seniors enjoy their twilight years and yet remain safe. The service is encouraging seniors to be proactive about their sexual health and have developed a pamphlet titled “Sex and Seniors.”
“Even married couples need to practice safe sex, because people are not always entirely honest,” said Marie Foglia, director of nursing, at the Margaret Tietz Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Jamaica. Women who are faithful can catch AIDS. “Once the risk of pregnancy is gone many people think that the condoms can go. But this is the time of greatest risk.”
Sterling Berkeley, assistant director of social work at Beth Abraham, has just received a grant to undertake educational outreach to seniors on safe sexual practices in New York City.
“We want to start a dialogue with Queens’ seniors,” he said, adding that often the place to start is with what the seniors believe. “There are still so many fallacies about AIDS.”He explained that often when people begin to talk about the subject, and what they know about it, a window to give them the facts opens.
While there may have been a time when the idea of even married couples having sexual relations in nursing homes would have been shocking, according to Foglia, things have changed. “We have to ensure that the sex is appropriate, that it is consensual, and then see that the couples have privacy.”
She explained that while Beth Abraham wants people to enjoy sex for as long as they can, there are certain issues that need to be addressed to ensure that they remain healthy. The Beth Abraham pamphlet advises seniors to have a frank conversation with their partner about previous sexual encounters. “Both you and your partner should be tested for STDs before your first sexual contact, and get treatment if appropriate, it says, pointing out that health centers provide free testing.
It adds that condoms must be used correctly every time seniors have sex, because either party may be unaware that they are infected with an STD. It points out that, though effective, condoms have a one to five percent failure rate, even when used correctly.
Using drugs and alcohol can impair judgments, and the ability to use a condom properly. Alcohol abuse is the most wide- spread cause of sexual problems.
Abstinence, not having sexual relations with anyone, is the only way of guaranteeing not to get an STD.
Like Berkeley, Foglia is concerned with addressing seniors’ misconceptions about sex.
Common, but incorrect notions include not engaging in sex for fear of a heart attack. According to Beth Abraham the opposite is true; a healthy sex life might actually decrease the risk of future heart attacks.
While diabetes can cause impotence, once treated, sexual drive can be restored. Stroke, on the other hand, may interfere with sexual functioning, but in cases where it does, doctors can often suggest ways to overcome the problem. It is unlikely that sexual activity will cause another stroke.
Barbara Toscano, director of the Peter Cardella Senior Center in Ridgewood, is a pioneer in the field of educating seniors about the dangers of AIDS and safe sexual practices. Hers was the first senior center to have AIDS testing for seniors.
“First we had a seminar on AIDS and prevention, and explained how to have safe sex,” she said, confirming that because seniors feel past the age of childbearing, they think they don’t need to have protection. “But the incidence of AIDS among seniors is high and rising. “Many seniors feel they can’t get AIDS.”
Toscano is also aware of many myths circulating among seniors regarding AIDS. “They think it is a disease for promiscuous people having unprotected sex,” she said, adding that AIDS is becoming a very big problem for seniors “Statistics support this and we wanted to bring it to the attention of our population. Unfortunately this subject is still taboo.”
Her first goal was to educate seniors. She wanted to give them the statistics, a good education and knowledge of preventive measures.
At the end of her seminar, seniors are given bags filled with grooming items and condoms. She keeps a carton of condoms in her center so that any senior wanting them, can take them without questions or judgment.
Then a noninvasive test is offered. “We had staff tested and over 50 seniors, all under the strictest confidentiality.” The center was never told the results of the testing, “It was done privately, in an office, behind closed doors.”
The seminar is repeated every two to three months and is open to anyone over 60. “Senior centers are a great meeting place, and some of the men who come here are married and having a bit (of sex) on the side,” she said, explaining the need for married couples to practice safe sex.
Because of the sensitive nature of the subject, Toscano has provided a four-hour training course for her staff, and for those staff at other senior centers in the area. At the seminars they learn how to break stereotypes and not be judgmental.
Toscano is well versed in the subject. She saw the statistics 15 years ago among the Florida population and incorporated the subject into a class she taught on better living.
For a list of resources in Queens including testing and counselling go to www. health.state.ny.us/diseases/aids/testing/ directory/index.htm.