Frank Talk to Seniors About STDs

Elderly Need to Know About Dangers of Disease, Even in Retirement

Frank Talk: Seniors may think they don’t need to worry about sexually transmitted diseases. But social workers say they need a dose of reality.
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Frank Talk: Seniors may think they don’t need to worry about sexually transmitted diseases. But social workers say they need a dose of reality.

By Mary Jane Fine

Published August 28, 2011, issue of September 02, 2011.

She warned them. She told those assembled at the Jewish community center, men and women aged 60-plus, that hers would be an X-rated lecture on sex education. Even so, two women stalked out, offended, when Dianne Matthew got to the part about oral sex.

“I use blatant language,” Matthew, a licensed clinical social worker affiliated with South Palm Beach County’s Ruth Rales Jewish Family Service, told the Forward. She said the walk-outs were an anomaly. “They’re not 12-year-old virgins,” she said. “You should be able to say the words ‘vagina,’ ‘penis,’ ‘orgasm.’” Not to mention — though she did — one three-word phrase that had an even greater impact: Sexually. Transmitted. Diseases.

Frank Talk: Social worker Diane Matthew says senior citizens shouldn’t be embarassed to talk about sex.
Mary Jane Fine
Frank Talk: Social worker Diane Matthew says senior citizens shouldn’t be embarassed to talk about sex.

Matthew’s lecture series for the 55-and-older gated communities of Boca Raton and Delray Beach began a decade ago, but in the wake of a recently reported “epidemic” among seniors, it has acquired a more urgent tone.

“I say to them, ‘You have to look out for yourself; you think because you can’t get pregnant, you don’t have to be careful,’” Matthew said. “I think, in general, most people are surprised [by the message]. They think it’s not going to happen to them. Most of the women were married to one man for 40 years. In their minds, STDs are for prostitutes.”

The headlines about STDs and seniors drew enough exposure to attract the attention of Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” which earlier this year sent staffer Jason Jones to the Michael-Ann Russell Jewish Community Center, in North Miami Beach, for a segment called “The Dirty Bird,” broadcast on January 10. The segment included a clip from a JCC-produced Claymation video, “Sex and the Seniors,” in which “Phyllis” and “Myrna” learn about the dangers of unprotected sex. (When one clay lady mentions the availability of free condoms, the other quips: “Well, you know seniors. They’ll take anything that’s free.”)

Jones also shmoozes with a small group of seniors, an exchange in which one man owns up, almost proudly, to having genital warts, and a woman declares, “I would hate to have my tombstone read that I died of herpes.”

Before Jones’s piece, a “Daily Show” producer approached Matthew, seeking seniors he could interview, but she declined to share clients’ contact information. Although a self-professed Stewart fan, “I wasn’t going to let them be laughed at on national television,” she said.

The essence of the situation is no laughing matter. Several recent studies have shown an increase in STDs among older people for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the use of Viagra and similar sex-life-extending drugs. Other factors include the lack of concern about pregnancy; naiveté in an age group that mostly predates school-based sex education; large numbers of long-married, one-partner-only widows and widowers, and the fact that many doctors fail to discuss sexual-risk conditions with older patients, assuming it to be unnecessary.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report exposes the fallacy of that assumption. It found many older adults to be sexually active and, therefore, as vulnerable to HIV infection as any age group. A recent survey, the CDC notes, showed that 73% of people between 57 and 64 had sex during the past year. Ditto, 53% percent aged between 65 and 74 and 26% between 75 and 85. The wording of the survey question left it unclear just how much sex these groups were having — and older people are often reluctant to discuss the issue — but experts believe it is significant. Moreover, in one study, also according to the CDC, nearly 60% of single women who had been sexually active during the past decade had intercourse without a condom.

“People don’t believe that people over 60 are having sex,” Matthew said, “but they’re a very sexually active group, especially with Viagra. It’s put them back in action.”

So far, amid the general increase in STDs among seniors, the specific threat of HIV/AIDS infection remains small. Medicare does pay for HIV screenings, although a full 93% of those eligible fall under a program targeting the disabled who are receiving Social Security Disability Insurance. The rest are in the 65-plus category. AARP’s website recently carried a story noting that STD exams may be added to Medicare’s list of reimbursable services.

In 2002, retired journalist Jane Pecinovsky Fowler launched the website HIV Wisdom for Older Women (www.hivwisdom.org). In her mid-50s and divorced after 24 years of marriage, Fowler had begun dating a man she had known for years — and who, she came to believe, infected her with the HIV virus. Fowler, who is now 77, was diagnosed with the virus in 1991 and subsequently helped organize the National Association on HIV Over Fifty. The group’s New England branch is hosting the sixth annual National Conference on HIV/Aids & Aging, to be held September 23 at Boston’s John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

As grave as those health concerns can be, Matthew has found that levity can ease her into a tension-free exchange with her audience. “I try to keep it funny,” she said. “Everybody wants to hear about [sex], but nobody wants to talk about it. I’ll quote Mae West: She said, ‘When I’m good, I’m very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better.’”

Her next sexual education session is scheduled for November, and she expects the same level of attentiveness, interest and appreciation, as always.

“I give them facts, not judgments,” Matthew said. “What’s normal? Norm is the name of some guy in Brooklyn.”

Contact Mary Jane Fine at feedback@forward.com



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