No One Taught Old People About Safe Sex and Now They’re Getting STIs

Gonorrhoea, chlamydia, and herpes are on the rise among older people. To find out more I spoke to researchers, and my own dad, about sexual health among the elderly.

by Chelsea McIver
Dec 15 2015, 6:28pm

Image via Flickr user Jennie

This post originally appeared on VICE Australia

It's a sad truth that, generally speaking, even the most sex-positive and open-minded people don't like to think about their grandparents doing it. Which is sad, because the fact is that people over 60 are having sex. Couples in long term relationships are keeping things fresh and older people are reentering the dating scene after divorces or partner deaths. That's all great, except there isn't a lot of STI education aimed at senior citizens, despite their climbing rates of infection.

Kirby Institute data on the 65-plus age group shows that between 2008 and 2012, new diagnoses of gonorrhoea more than doubled in Australia, and rates of chlamydia infections increased significantly. Additionally, the Australian Bureau of Statistics' Australian Social Trends Report estimated that nearly 20 percent of people infected with genital herpes were over 65.

While the number of older people being diagnosed is still low compared to other age groups, the increase is enough to pique the curiosity of key research centers.

Dr. Bianca Fileborn is a Research Officer from La Trobe University's Australian Research Centre in Health, Sex, and Society (ARCHSS). She, along with representatives from other universities and the National Ageing Research Institute, is working on a project called "Sex, Age, and Me." It's the first national study to explore sexuality amongst people over 60.

The project is revealing that while most young people begin talking about STI prevention in the classroom, people over 60 were brought up during an era when sex education was mostly non-existent. People were also more likely to marry their first and only sexual partner, decreasing the chance for an ongoing dialogue about sexual health.

To understand this more, I called up the pensioner closest to me. Lachlan is 67 and grew up in a conservative family in the suburbs of Melbourne. Full disclosure: he's also my dad. When I asked about his own experience of sexual education he told me, "Irrespective of whether you were Catholic, engaging in sex before marriage just wasn't an issue because people weren't doing it," he explains. The extent of his formal sex education was one information night hosted at his high school. "I raised it with my mom and dad and they said 'oh, you don't need to go to that.'"

Following on from my dad's comments, Bianca explains that not only were older people raised with different attitudes toward sexuality, but the dating and relationship patterns of older people are increasingly changing. With the advent of online dating and longer lifespans, people are continuing or developing new sexual relations later in life. In many situations this is "the first time they have to negotiate condom use and STIs," she explains.

Alongside this gap in education, older people still carry a lot of misconceptions when it comes to STIs. Outdated stereotypes like only "bad" people get STIs remain. Bianca remembers one study respondents who said, "I don't need an STI test because I'm not one of 'those people.'" When I asked my dad about these attitudes he explained, "even though there was sexually transmitted diseases, that was a danger associated with promiscuous sex."

Bianca also flagged that broader dialogue around the intersection of things like condom use and erectile dysfunction are also pretty much nonexistent. But I didn't ask my dad about that.

The conversation around senior sexual health education is difficult to start. For this article VICE attempted to speak to several aged care providers about how they manage the issue, but all declined to discuss the topic. Furthermore, there is no current data available on STI rates in aged care facilities, which researchers have flagged as possible hotbeds of infection.

Bianca points to this lack of action as a growing concern, especially for community-based seniors who see themselves living in aged care in the future. "Aged care doesn't really accommodate sex... staff discourage it."

Although care facilities have stalled on addressing these issues, organizations such as Family Planning NSW have taken a more proactive stance in educating older people about STIs. In 2012, the organization launched the Little Black Dress campaign in conjunction with dating site RSVP. The campaign was aimed at women over 40 and focused on condom use. Women were able to request free unmarked safe sex education packs.

In a similar vein, US-based Safe Sex For Seniors also produced a public service announcement to educate older people on the real risk of contracting an STI.

But despite these efforts, a wider sexual health education revolution requires more than just YouTube videos. The key to managing STIs amongst older people, Fileborn argues, is that doctors and health professionals need to start discussing sexual health with them. This is particularly important as the patient may feel uncomfortable bringing up such topics. "People have a right to good sexual health throughout their life course," she explains.

Many doctors are already being proactive on an immediate level with their own patients. Professor Basil Donovan, the Head of Sexual Health at the Kirby Institute, points out that the increased statistics around older people with STIs are also a product of more sexual health testing in that demographic. "There's at least twice as much testing as there ever has been," he adds. More testing always means more diagnosis.

At a national level, the ARCHSS study is in its final stages of data collection and it has anticipated that research findings will be available mid-2016. This research will provide valued insight into the older population's sexual behavior and potential risk, in turn helping to inform public policy.

But for now, next time you see your grandparents, do your part and ask if they need a rubber.

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