City Journal: The Old and the Restless

With STD fears on the rise, state health officials want old-timers (that’s right) talking about safe sex.

Today’s senior citizens are living longer than ever before, and that’s giving them time for all sorts of things. They watch grandchildren grow into adults, maybe take a painting class or sail to St. Kitts. Oh, and they have lots of sex.

Crass as the image of randy old-timers may be, it’s something Massachusetts health officials are beginning to buzz about. Roused by social cues (not to mention social settings) that hype active lifestyles, and juiced up on medical rejuvenators like Viagra, today’s elder set is a bawdy bunch. Furthermore, seniors tend to carry outdated sexual attitudes, and that can make them just as careless as uninformed adolescents. (Common, for instance, is the misconception that because menopausal women aren’t prone to pregnancy, condoms are unnecessary.) All of which explains an uptick in sexually transmitted diseases among seniors. In 1999, 9 percent of those diagnosed with HIV were over 50; by 2004 that number had climbed to 15 percent.

Worrisome stats, to be sure, but bringing seniors up to date on the dangers of sex is an idea so cringe-worthy that it’s overlooked in favor of programs aimed at a traditionally more horny and clueless group: teenagers. Alfred DeMaria, chief medical officer at the state Department of Public Health, says many doctors simply don’t think to talk to older patients about sexual lifestyles. And because STD symptoms can be confused with those of more-innocent geriatric ailments like urinary infections, physicians are known to misdiagnose. To counter that, the Boston Partnership for Older Adults is introducing a program later this year aimed in part at helping doctors talk about sex with their elderly patients.

The clock is ticking. Winter, perhaps the fiercest germ-swapping time of the year, is on its way—and Boston-area snowbirds are packing up to head south. “It’s very much like spring break,” says Boston resident Jim Campbell, president of the National Association on HIV Over Fifty. “They’re freer.” And if Grandpa isn’t set straight, there’s no telling what extra baggage he might bring home come spring.