According to the Center for Disease Control, among our senior citizen population sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are spreading like wildfire. Since 2007, incidence of syphilis among seniors is up by 52 percent, with chlamydia up 32 percent. And this isn’t merely a phenomenon in the United States, as several recent British studies have produced similar results. So apparently the hippy generation has decided to dust off its slightly musty mantra: If it feels good, do it.
However you decide to parse the statistics, one thing is abundantly clear: Many senior citizens are sexually active, and quite a lot of them are choosing to not “suit up” before dancing the horizontal mambo. Recognizing this fact, Medicare now offers free STD screenings for seniors. Unfortunately, as of now, only about 5% of those who are eligible for this no-cost service have chosen to utilize it, which means the tsunami of seniors swapping STDs swells onward unabated.
Blame it on Modern Healthcare?
In reality, there are a number of factors driving the Swinging Seniors’ Bus, most notably the fact that Americans are living longer, healthier lives. This in turn means that as a nation we are maintaining emotional and physical interest in sex much longer than predecessor generations— well into our sixties, seventies, and beyond. Plus, we’ve got a plethora of potent little pills that facilitate matters for men who might otherwise be flying half-mast. Like it or not, testosterone supplements and medications like Viagra, Cialis, and Levitra do their jobs, and usually rather well. And it’s not just older men who are sexually proactive via medication. Older women are happily using progesterone and estrogen creams along with numerous other potions and products that both keep them more interested in sex and make sex more comfortable and enjoyable. So maybe GILF is the new MILF. (Figure the GILF acronym out on your own, folks!)
Blame it on those 1950s Hygiene Videos?
In addition to being more interested in sex and also more able to sexually perform, today’s seniors are woefully undereducated about STDs on every level (signs, symptoms, etc.) They seem to believe that if pregnancy is not an issue, game on! The children and grandchildren of these folks typically received relatively useful sex education in school, including “safe sex” talks, but today’s seniors did not. Instead, they got 8mm hygiene films that chided “Dirty Davey” for not washing his hands before lunch. This, of course, resulted in a generation of kids who grew up thinking girls get pregnant by sitting on unwashed toilet seats. In fact, pretty much the only members of today’s senior set that ever formally learned about STDs and the need for condoms received that education as soldiers, and for them the warnings were only in regard to “ladies of the night” in foreign ports. In other words, the concept of catching chlamydia from the girl (or the grandma) next door is not something that likely crosses most seniors’ minds. As such, as far as the AARP generation is concerned, if tonight’s lucky lady is post-menopausal (no danger of pregnancy), then there’s no need for a condom and hooray for us old folks for not having to worry about that. So yeah, it seems as if most seniors are a little bit behind the times when it comes to knowing which sexual activities can and can’t cause problems.
Blame it on Retirement Communities?
As mentioned earlier, STD rates are rising for seniors all over the US and also in the UK (and probably in other industrialized nations as well). That said, this increase is significantly more prevalent in areas where retirees have formed large communities. For instance, in Arizona’s retirement-heavy (and, for what it’s worth, extremely socially and politically conservative) Pima and Maricopa counties, reported cases of syphilis and chlamydia among those 55 and older rose 87 percent from 2005 to 2009. Central Florida saw a 71 percent rise in the same timeframe, and South Florida saw a 60 percent rise. In some ways it looks as if the hard-partying denizens of Animal House have simply moved their shenanigans into the Shady Palms Retirement Villa. In fact, the main difference between our senior communities and our undergraduate college campuses may be that in the malls, parks, and other social milieus of Tampa, Scottsdale, and Palm Springs there aren’t a bunch of well-intentioned people passing out condoms and safer-sex informational brochures.
Are Seniors More Prone to STDs?
Growing older and wiser doesn’t make people any less susceptible to communicable diseases. In fact, age tends to make people more rather than less susceptible to disease. Simply put, as we grow older our immune systems tend to weaken, and we therefore become more prone to infection. Plus, there are other aging-related health issues that can complicate matters—everything from heart disease to liver damage to diabetes to whatever else you can think of. Making matters worse is the fact that STDs can be asymptomatic for lengthy periods, meaning they often go untreated. This is bad news on three fronts. Firstly, it increases the odds of passing the STD along to some other unsuspecting soul. Secondly, while the body is busy (quietly and invisibly) fighting an STD, other opportunistic infections can take root and/or worsen. Thirdly, when a senior citizen visits his or her healthcare professional about age-typical aches and pains, an STD test probably isn’t the first or even second order of business for that clinician and patient.
What’s To Be Done?
If these were our children, we could lecture them, make them double-date, and/or ground them, but they’re not. These are our parents and grandparents and, if we’re over 55, our friends, our neighbors, our significant others, and even ourselves. So what to do? Clearly, as was the case when we worked to slow the spread of HIV in the 1980s and 90s, the main thrust must be education—both nationally and at the grassroots level. Essentially, seniors should be getting the same basic information as young people, learning about how STDs are transmitted, what their short- and long-term effects are, and how transmission can be prevented. They should also be made aware of the fact that Medicare does indeed provide free STD screenings with low-cost treatment should results come back positive. Additionally, clinicians need to address the STD issue by including questions about sexual activity in their senior citizen patient assessments. And it wouldn’t hurt if we started giving away free condoms in senior centers, bars that cater to seniors, and other senior citizen social venues. Just don’t tell the grandkids about it.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. He has developed clinical programs for The Ranch outside Nashville, Tennessee, Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu, and The Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles.An author and subject expert on the relationship between digital technology and human sexuality, Mr. Weiss has served as a media specialist for CNN, The Oprah Winfrey Network, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Today Show, among many others. He has also provided clinical multi-addiction training and behavioral health program development for the US military and treatment centers throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia.