For older men and women, the fun game is no longer shuffleboard. It’s sex. And that’s a great thing—except that sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are on a meteoric rise in this age group. The latest stats…
- Between 2007 and 2011, chlamydia infections among Americans age 65 and over increased by 31%.
- Syphilis infections in this age group rose by 52% in the same period.
- 17% of new cases of HIV infection are in people age 50 and older.
THE NEW SEXUAL REVOLUTION
One big reason for the rise of STDs—also called “sexually transmitted infections” or STIs—is that more people continue to be sexually active well into their golden years. “The generation of people now hitting this stage of life came of age during the sexual revolution—they’re healthier and fitter and expect to keep having sex,” explains Melanie Davis, PhD, copresident of the Sexuality and Aging Consortium at Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania, and founder of the website Safer Sex for Seniors.
Viagra and related erectile dysfunction (ED) drugs play a role, too. One study found that men (average age 61) who used these drugs were twice as likely to have STDs compared with men who didn’t. As women become more savvy about managing sexual health after menopause, they also find sex easier to enjoy. It’s also liberating for many women to be able to have sex without worrying about getting pregnant.
Being able to enjoy sex later in life, with more comfort and no worries about pregnancy, is all good. But it also opened the door to the new epidemic of STDS.
It has even become an issue in long-term-care facilities. Many STDs are asymptomatic, but most nursing homes and assisted-care facilities don’t screen for them. And even if they did, all it would take is one conjugal visit with an infected nonresident for an infection to spread, according to Dr. Davis. Plus, people with chronic conditions may be more susceptible to infection, including STDs.
If you’re sexually active, especially if you have recently had multiple sexual partners (or your partner has), being tested for STDs should be a regular part of your preventive medical care. It’s so important for the health of seniors that Medicare now covers STD testing as a free preventive service. But as with everything related to health, prevention is always better than treatment. Here’s how to stay safe—and still enjoy yourself.
HOW TO HAVE MORE FUN IN BED…SAFELY
The single best way to prevent the spread of infection during sex—heterosexual or homosexual—is to use a barrier form of protection such as an external or internal condom or dam, says Dr. Davis.
As bodies change, though, it can take new skills to use barrier protection right. For older men, for example, “the use of an external condom can be tough if he has challenges achieving a firm erection or if his erection waxes and wanes during sex,” she explains.
This doesn’t mean, however, that it can’t be done. Nor does it mean people struggling with this issue must either consign themselves to a having a risky sex life or going back to shuffleboard. Some tips…
- Hold on. If you change position while wearing a condom during sex, either partner can reach down and keep the condom in place by holding the bottom of it (the part closest to the man’s body). One slip and the protective quality of a condom goes down the drain.
- Try an “innie.” An internal condom (aka a female condom) can be the perfect alternative to a conventional external (aka “male”) one. Basically an elongated tube of pliable plastic, this disposable device has soft rings at either end. One ring is inserted into the vagina to hold that end of the condom in place. The other end stays outside the body. “It can look a little weird,” says Dr. Davis, “and it takes a little practice, but it has some real advantages. The material it is made of transfers heat well, and that can feel better and more natural for both partners than an external condom,” says Dr. Davis. It’s fine to use an extra lubricant, but it’s often not necessary. “The lubrication inside and outside of the internal condom helps with comfort,” she explains. “It’s pretty slippery.” The female condom is more protective as well. “A conventional condom doesn’t cover the base of the penis, which is where the herpes virus likes to hang out,” explains Dr. Davis. “Not only does an internal condom solve that problem, it covers the entire labia, essentially providing a barrier against any other organisms as well.”
- Practice safe oral sex, too. Pretty much any STD you can get on your genitals you also can get in your mouth, according to Dr. Davis. “Use an external condom if you’re performing fellatio or an internal condom if you’re performing cunnilingus,” she advises. Another option: A “dam,” which uses a square of material (similar to a female condom) designed for just this purpose. Says Dr. Davis, “They make flavored condoms and dams for a reason—to be used during oral sex.”
- Lube it or leave it. With age, vulvar and vaginal tissue gets thinner and dryer so that, even during gentle sex, it can be more easily torn—basically opening the door for a sexually transmitted organism. A woman can increase her pleasure and decrease her risk for infection by using a lubricant. Dr. Davis advises using a silicone-based lube. “It stays viscous longer than water-based lube,” she explains. If dryness is a significant problem, talk to your doctor. You may benefit from a topical estrogen cream or another product that moisturizes the tissues. (A condom is still essential for protection, of course.)
- Tinker with toys. Safety is only one part of the satisfying senior sex equation. Men and women of a certain age also just want to have fun. “In terms of pleasure” says Dr. Davis, “adult toys are a great idea.” For both genders, the older the body the more time and direct stimulation is needed for both arousal and orgasm, she explains. So don’t just play it safe—it’s fine to just play, too. “Small bullet-style vibrators are great for targeted stimulation of the clitoris,” she explains. “Palm-sized vibrators, about the size of a computer mouse, are easy to hold against the vulva, while longer vibrators or dildos (elongated, without vibrations) are good for internal play and keeping the vaginal muscles flexible. For penises, masturbation sleeves, vibrating or not, can be pleasurable—lubricant increases comfort and sensation.”
- Try a little tenderness. “Consider other types of ‘toys’ as well,” says Dr. Davis. “Brushing a partner’s hair is very sensual—with zero STD risk.” So is a partner massage. “Massage oil can also enhance sexual experiences,” she added.