Sex and the single septuagenarian

HIV and STDs are on the rise among senior citizens. So when it comes to safe sex, it may be time to teach America's old dogs some new tricks.

Published December 4, 2006 1:00PM (EST)

A few years ago there was a popular Pepsi commercial featuring presidential candidate and Viagra spokesman Bob Dole watching Britney Spears dance on TV. At the end of the ad, a dog sitting at Dole's side barks at the set. "Easy, boy," says Dole to the pooch -- though I always thought it was slyly implied that he was actually talking to his own reanimated wiener.

This three-alarm image of the senator erect is uncomfortable on a lot of levels, but the most obvious is that people aren't used to thinking of seniors in a sexual way and aren't in a rush to start. We love to see Grandma and Grandpa running marathons, volunteering and taking tap class. But imagining them doing the mattress mambo is another story.

Senior sexuality is certainly important in Florida, the oldest state in the country, and where, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 17 percent of the population was 65 or over as of July 1, 2005. And those seniors aren't just sitting home playing bridge: In "Sexuality at Midlife and Beyond," a 2004 update to a 1999 AARP survey, more than half of respondents, aged 45 and up, cited sexual activity as a critical part of good relationships and as an important factor in quality of life. Eighty-four percent disagreed or strongly disagreed that "Sex is only for young people" and reported having intimate experiences once a week, ranging from kissing to intercourse. In September of 2006, the CNBC Special Report "Boomer Nation" reported that over-50 singles make up's fastest-growing demographic. "People are orgasmic well into their 90s," says Sallie Foley, director for the Center for Sexual Health at the University of Michigan Health System, author, and "Modern Love" columnist for the AARP magazine. A sex therapist, Foley recently had a client who experienced her first orgasm at 67.

Of course, lives -- and libidos -- don't end at 50. But a growing concern is that the same parents and grandparents who once scolded their kids for playing outside without coats may not always be covering up where it counts beneath the sheets. According to Tom Liberti, chief of the Bureau of HIV/AIDS for the Florida Department of Health, 16 percent of newly reported HIV cases in 2005 were in people over 50. Numbers on other sexually transmitted diseases don't suggest that they're spreading like wildfire among seniors (though not all STDs are necessarily reported to the DOH). Still, with more older singles than ever, well, you know the sex talk your parents dreaded having with you when you were a kid? Now you might want to have a similar one with them. (Well, want might be taking it a bit far.)

Viagra and other erectile dysfunction drugs have enabled seniors to have active sex lives longer into their golden years, but those same seniors are typically not targeted with information about safety. "People don't want to think about it," says Jim Campbell, president of the National Association on HIV Over Fifty. It's an attitude he likens to "Everyone else's kid is having sex except mine." Campbell's group recently helped one nursing home establish a room for conjugal visits that couples can reserve like a hotel room. He doesn't want to say which nursing home, though, because talk of sexual matters tends to cause such consternation.

"One of our counselors has a 100-year-old man with HIV," says Jolene Mullins, an early intervention consultant with the Broward County Health Department's Senior HIV Intervention Project. "He's newly diagnosed and how he got it we'll probably never know," though she does say sexual contact is the prime transmission method of the virus in the older population, along with some needle sharing. But consider: Even if he had been infected 25 years ago, it still would have been at age 75.

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Hang onto that thought and now remember how resistant older people can be to new things. I once asked my own mother why she didn't use the microwave and she said, defiantly, "Because I'm too old." If seniors are slow to adapt to cellphones, how about using condoms? In their day they were strictly for birth control -- perhaps the one health concern that seniors, luxuriously, don't have to worry about.

"I never heard the word 'condom' till I don't know when. We whispered the word 'rubber,'" says Jane Fowler, 71. Even now, she jokingly rushes over the word in a phone interview from her Kansas City home. Jane has a sparkling laugh and the sweetest, most Marion Cunningham voice I've ever heard. She was diagnosed with HIV at the age of 55 and eventually co-founded the National Association on HIV Over Fifty, is co-founder and director of HIV Wisdom for Older Women, and works as an HIV/AIDS educator, speaking to groups all across the country.

In 1991 Fowler got a letter from an insurance company she'd applied to for coverage and was shocked to find she had been denied. "My blood had disclosed a significant abnormality," she says, though the letter didn't say what it was. She remembered someone had come by and stuck her finger. "He left with my application and my deposit and my blood and I didn't think any more about it, especially the blood, until I got this letter."

Using datebook diaries that go back to 1958, Fowler was able to trace not just the approximate time she was infected, but the day. After 23 years of marriage, she had unwillingly been divorced, and after awhile she started dating. "I had a few intimacies," she said. "[I wasn't] out there sleeping around ... I didn't fit the stereotype," Fowler explains, and so wasn't the kind of person anyone would figure to test. The man she was seeing when she was infected was someone she had known for a long time. "He is not alive today," she says.

It makes Fowler cringe when she hears about seniors who practice what she sees as a kind of willful naiveti. She picks a few names "out of the '30s" to illustrate her point. "So, you've got Betty and she's announced that she started dating Jack and she's so comfortable because she's known him for so long. She knew Jack when he was married to Mary. Then Mary died. Betty does not know what Jack was doing or what Mary was doing. You don't know what's going on in somebody's bedroom, or outside of it. I found that out myself."

People tell her, "I'm so thankful that I'm with Herb because I just never have anything to worry about." Fowler laughs. "And you think, 'OK, Marge, OK.'" Still, she says, "It's hard to stand up in front of women and suggest to them that their partner, significant other, whatever, might be having experiences outside this primary relationship."

Jolene Mullins, of the Broward County Health Department, says another concern is senior men who are gay or bisexual and may not have been able to be open about their sexuality in the past -- and might not think of HIV as affecting their generation. "I can't tell you how many seniors say, 'This is not my problem,'" Mullins says. "[They ask], 'Why are you even talking to us?'"

A big part of that attitude relates to America's timidity in talking about sex, in Fowler's opinion. Older people are especially reluctant to do so -- and often their healthcare providers don't ask. Doctors see someone who looks like their grandmother and think, "I'm not going to ask this person about sex!"

Tom Liberti, of the Florida Department of Health, says he's spoken to med students at Florida State University's School of Medicine about that very issue. "If a 60- or 70-year-old presents at a doctor's office with medical symptoms like losing weight ... the doctor isn't necessarily going to think of HIV," but the virus doesn't discriminate. Jane Fowler offers doctors another way of looking at it: "An older person, in the confines of a provider's office, might even enjoy bragging a little bit."

Though methods of diagnosis (like the 30-minute HIV test) and medication have improved considerably, testing can still be a scary experience for anyone -- but especially for seniors who are uncomfortable discussing their intimate secrets. Fortunately, Miriam Schuler, an 87-year-old Fort Lauderdale widow, is the adorable embodiment of the Sue Johanson-Dr. Ruth effect (the one that makes frank sexual messages seem easier to hear from older women). "I've been called "the Condom Grandma," Schuler says, for her volunteer work handing out condoms on behalf of Broward County's Senior HIV Intervention Project, mostly at health fairs. She even gives me a handful, a sign she is clearly more optimistic about my love life than I am.

Schuler tells me she shows passersby a picture of a dress made out of condoms and asks, "Do you think I should wear this to my granddaughter's wedding?" Sometimes senior men will tell her, "I'm too old for this," and she'll give them a condom anyway and say, "Put it in your pocket. Make your friends jealous." She encourages grandparents to send condoms to their grandkids with the birthday check and a note that says, "We love you. Be safe."

Tom Liberti says that when the numbers of HIV-infected seniors in Florida climbed up to 11 percent, the Department of Health started looking at ways to reach seniors, like putting more mature faces on their health posters. Schuler is a perfect example of what an asset older people can be to their own community, simply by communicating the idea that condoms aren't just for birth control anymore.

"I can tell you the attitude of the men," says one 66-year-old woman I speak to on the phone. They come from an era where they didn't use protection, and "they think, 'I'll be dead from old age before I die of AIDS.'" She protects her friends' identities and doesn't want hers used, but says some singles insist on sexual safety, and even knows one couple who broke up over the idea. "She said she wouldn't have sex without protection. He said he wouldn't have sex with protection. That was the end of that."

A few days later, I'm tooling down the Florida Turnpike for an evening out at the Villages, a retirement community so large it covers part of three counties in central Florida. Dozens of golf carts are parked outside the shops and restaurants of the Spanish Springs Town Square like a parody of the motorcycles that line the streets during Bike Week in Daytona. My companions and I have been invited to Katie Belle's Resident Club, for Villagers only, and the vastness of the two-story nightspot and the din inside come as a surprise. The saloon-style interior is heavy on carved wood and stained glass, as if you dropped a disco into a Bob Evans, only more posh. Our hostess is a well-dressed bundle of energy, and her generosity in introducing friends -- and theirs in chatting -- makes it a disarmingly warm and welcoming place.

The crowds are so dense that people stand on the staircase, their ages ranging from collegiate to septuagenarian, though heavy on the latter. I get ankle-deep into the merlot with a number of residents, a band called Rocky and the Rollers play classics, and the emcee announces that Katie Belle's will be open all the way until 11 p.m. Turns out there are other clubs people typically move on to when they're looking for a late night. I ask a woman sitting beside me if she does much dating.







To be fair, it's loud in there.

She's single, loves life in the Villages, but needn't date as she has "a steady" whom she calls "my fianci." When I ask when the wedding is she looks at me like I'm bananas. "I was married for 30 years and engaged for 15," she says. At her age she evidently has no interest in making another such commitment.

Another woman, trim and prim, isn't nuts about the dating scene, partly because there's just too much competition. Everyone I talk with consistently cites female-male ratios of around 8-to-1, making the men sound like kids in a candy store.

One Village guy tells me that he's "very concerned" about STDs, but doesn't use protection all that much. I ask one of the women if her friends worry about protection.

"Yes," she says, "but they don't follow through" on their concerns.

"How do you know?" I ask.

"Because I didn't. I said I would, and I didn't."

After hitting three clubs, throwing back quite a few, hearing karaoke -- not to mention a lot of thoughts about love, life and lingerie -- and dancing with a charming 75-year-old man, I conclude that my new septuagenarian friends and I have more in common than I imagined. I remember how, days earlier, one of my sources had asked me my age.

"I'm 41," I answered.

"Whatever is going on with you at 41," she said, "is going on with us."

This is not to single out the Villages as a den of vice; it had enough trouble after a story concerning the rapid rise of STDs there appeared on the local news -- a report some residents rolled their eyes at as "overblown." Jolene Mullins says that the socialization in a place like the Villages might mean there are more sexual opportunities, but doesn't discount that seniors who live in regular neighborhoods and congregate at community centers also find sexual partners. Still, she says "the reality is that in those communities you've got seven females for every male."

Former Villages public relations director Bob Mervine has his own take. By and large, these are people "who grew up at a time when sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll were forbidden," he explains. "Now those things are normal, everyday parts of their lives. They think they are in heaven. All the booze, all the sex in the world and all the time to enjoy them."

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Two weeks later, in Broward County, I find myself in a very different kind of senior center, a single building, whose literature describes it as "an independent senior living community." Instead of a lavish town square, I enter the subdued building, hushed and pleasant. I've arrived on a weekday afternoon for an HIV screening, which is a lot different than happy hour. It's not quite unhappy hour either, though. There is ice cream.

Edid Gonzáles, outreach coordinator for Broward County's SHIP program, says most of the seniors she tries to educate and offers to test for HIV think she's giving them good information to pass on to their grandchildren. They don't get right away that it's for them.

Nine people file in and out of a community room while Gonzáles, bearing a bag full of black condoms (well, it's almost Halloween) the size of a throw pillow, is here. No one thinks they need the information, but almost everyone is attentive, supportive, talkative and curious. They ask questions, like why there is no vaccination program for HIV and whether the virus can be spread through saliva. Calvin Sprague, 66, tells Edid, "I'm 100 percent behind what you're doing." One woman mentions that she saw a commercial that said the effect of "that pill" can last up to four hours. "In four hours," she says, "you could screw the whole building."

No one gets tested.

Gentle, soft-spoken Gonzáles tries to make one of these presentations every day in hopes of reaching more South Florida seniors. For those who believe "something else will kill me first," Gonzáles' colleague Jolene Mullins says, "The virus attacks the immune system and your immune system naturally breaks down with aging. If HIV is put on top of that, it naturally enhances the problems." Then there is the challenge of seniors who have other serious illnesses, like diabetes, and must battle HIV on top of them. The complex interaction of medications is just one more risk for doctors to consider.

It all comes down to prevention. Jane Fowler has a special maxim she likes to use at her presentations that brings it all back to Bob Dole. Back when Dole was doing ads that said it took courage to talk to your doctor about erectile dysfunction, Fowler thought he should have advocated safety, too. She even offered a line: "Now, if you can get it up, cover it up."

By Liz Langley

Liz Langley is an award-winning freelance writer and author whose work has appeared in more than 20 publications and websites, including Salon, National and Glamour. She can be found on Facebook, Twitter and the treadmill at the gym, pretending she's running to catch a plane.

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