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Old Folks Gettin’ It On (And Avoiding HIV)

July 13, 2009

RH Reality Check has a heart-stopping headline on a sensitive topic: How Are Your Orgasms, Mom?

Whew, have you recovered yet?

I’m just being a little silly because the idea of older adults – even our parents – having sex is an idea that most of us would probably rather avoid. Hey, I joke when I’m uncomfortable – you? It’s certainly not something many of us (in my estimation) have gotten comfortable thinking or talking about. That’s why the above-linked post is so awesome.

The post, by Ann Whidden of the National Sexuality Resource Center, begins:

My mom turns sixty-nine this fall, and she recently asked if I could turn my communications expertise to a more familial project: updating her personal profile on a popular dating site. As she gears up to meet men for Coke dates in the mall, I geared up for how to have “the talk” that I never got from her. How do I cover the basics, like condom use and STI prevention that I wished I’d heard from her as a teen-and how do I cover topics like vaginal dryness, communication, and pleasure (topics I would have liked, but maybe not from mom)? I wish to be as bold as masturbation guru Betty Dodson, who, the story goes, once asked her mother, “How are your orgasms?”

Kudos to Ann for thinking about breaking down the barriers to open communication that many of us have. Ann also cites what I think is a very important statistic, and one that nobody ever seems to know/believe/take me seriously about:
15% of new HIV/AIDS cases are in people over 50 years of age
No, there haven’t historically been a huge percentage of HIV+ people who were older. However, as the CDC notes, people over 50 are not only 15% of new cases, but also 24% of persons living with HIV/AIDS (increased from 17% in 2001), 19% of all AIDS diagnoses, 29% of persons living with AIDS, and 35% of all deaths of persons with AIDS.

Regarding the new infections in older adults – These are people who did not grow up with HIV. They did not grow up with HIV awareness in their schools. Now, of course I can’t speak for what older people know about HIV. I know there is a lot of concern about the fact that they did not grow up learning about it, and may not be as up on safer sex practices as some younger folk. So if, like Ann, you have an older adult in your life who could use some information, follow her example and think about what you can perhaps provide.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. naomidagenbloom permalink
    July 14, 2009 6:02 am

    And then there’s knitting…no surprise to you, Rachel, that my suggestion would be for her Mom to visit–7 patterns by 5 knitters. We also have a group on with more great fiber creations. All to start the conversation with women over 50, and everyone else.

    • July 14, 2009 7:47 am

      Thank you Naomi – I should have thought of that myself! 🙂

  2. July 14, 2009 9:08 am

    Regarding the new infections in older adults – These are people who did not grow up with HIV. They did not grow up with HIV awareness in their schools.

    You might want to break that down some more. I’m sure it applies some to people older than, say, 65. But for those of us between 50 and 65 or so, we had AIDS burst terrifyingly upon the scene when we were in our twenties and thirties and often out there dating ourselves, watched spiraling numbers of people we knew die horribly, told each other that we had to use condoms, told each other to go get tested because knowing these things was important even if the disease was a death sentence, cheered when the death rate finally seemed to slow down. Granted, the impact of the epidemic depended on where we lived. But still, I think we’re a lot more aware of HIV than you younger folks who did grow up with it.

    • July 14, 2009 5:41 pm

      Well, the statistics tell a different story. Many older men resist using condoms, and the women don’t insist. Certainly, older people are aware of AIDS, they just think it can’t happen to them.

    • July 15, 2009 4:55 pm

      nm, I literally meant “did not grow up with,” as in, from childhood. As you mention, those who are 50 now would have been ~22 in 1981 when HIV/AIDS first (very first) started getting attention. I was 3. It was part of my education in school my entire childhood. There is a fair bit of evidence in the medical literature demonstrating more persistence of incorrect information/myths among older adults, less awareness that HIV is something anyone/they could get, and less willingness to talk to clinicians about their risk, although it varies depending on the specific population surveyed.

  3. July 15, 2009 12:05 pm

    What am I missing in the numbers, then? Because to me the numbers suggest that people over 50 (40% of the population) get HIV infections less frequently (only 15% of new infections) than younger age groups. Am I reading this wrong?

    • naomidagenbloom permalink
      July 15, 2009 1:14 pm

      Puzzled about why this is important to you. Perhaps it would be helpful for you to connect with the HIV/AIDS crisis on a national level for all of us rather than the focus you’ve chosen. Here’s a link from the Housing Works (NYC) website about the call to Obama for action on the issue–

      Concerned volunteers always needed in programs that work with various populations– teens, adults, elderly–in the struggle against the ravages of AIDS.

    • July 15, 2009 4:57 pm

      In part it’s that there are more among that age group than there used to be, there are more older adults living with the disease, and programs targeting HIV/AIDS haven’t traditionally focused on the needs of older adults. It’s also sort of generally perceived that older adults may be less willing to talk openly about the issue or less aware that it may personally affect them, so services may need to be targeted differently for that population. I’m sure Naomi is more informed and articulate about this than I am, but that’s my take.

  4. July 16, 2009 3:51 am

    I think even older people need some sex education to remind them about this. Their immune system is not that strong at that age i guess.

  5. July 16, 2009 9:23 am

    Of course everyone needs sex ed reminders. If what I’m given to understand about abstinence-only sex ed is true, lots of the kids getting it now could use some facts to begin with.

    But don’t you see that the approach “there are more [HIV infections] among the age group than there used to be” is missing the point? There isn’t some constant group of “over 50s” or “over 60s” who have suddenly changed their behavior. There are people who 5 years ago were “over 45” or “over 55” and ten years ago were “over 40” etc. And they aren’t changing their behavior all that much; they haven’t suddenly started to develop new relationships to sex. Do older people need to consider that some features of aging may require them to change their approach to protecting themselves? Sure. Their immune systems aren’t what they used to be, vaginal dryness and the increased of lubricants changes the risk, taking more medications that may or may not interact with birth control needs to be considered, all sorts of things. But to approach this as a challenge in how to reach “old people”, rather than as a challenge in tailoring the message people have been getting for decades to changes in their bodies, I think misses the point.

    • July 16, 2009 1:48 pm

      “they haven’t suddenly started to develop new relationships to sex” – that is actually one concern I’ve read in the literature about this – that as people lose their spouses as older adults, they may be “on the scene” so to speak and be considering new sexual relationships (with potential disease exposure) for the first time in a long time. And I don’t think you can deliver that targeted message if you don’t reach people first, and make sure people of all ages are comfortable talking about the issue.

      I agree that there may not be a “constant” group of 50-60, 60-70, or what have you, but am interested in what those groups need right now, in a specific time with a specific history. Of course there will be individual variation and I’m sure one could find an individual 85-year-old who is much more knowledgeable than an individual 20-year-old. Right now, though, the evidence is that people in those higher age groups may have less accurate information and be less willing to talk about it than younger populations – that may very well change over time, and indeed I think the hope is that it will.

      You and I may have to agree to disagree on whether this is a group worth reaching out to with a specific message, but thanks as always for participating.

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