Sex Ed for Seniors: You Still Need Those Condoms
Sexually transmitted diseases stalk older singles, too
Postmenopausal women, moreover, may be particularly prone to getting infected with blood-borne diseases like HIV or chlamydia in the first place. That's because their thinner and more fragile vaginal lining can easily tear during penetration, allowing pathogens to enter the bloodstream. And new research indicates that older women are at risk of getting infected with HPV, which can give rise to genital warts or cervical cancer. "We once thought that they were just getting a reactivation of an old infection, but now we think these might be new infections from unprotected sex," says Lindau, who is actively researching this subject.
The most effective way to prevent disease is to use condoms consistently. Research indicates they're nearly 90 percent effective against HIV transmission. And a 2006 New England Journal of Medicine study found that women whose partners used condoms all the time were 70 percent less likely to acquire HPV than those whose partners rarely used them. The female condom is also an effective barrier, says Lindau.
Perhaps the most important first step, public health officials believe, is simply making seniors aware of the risks. Several weeks ago, New York City officials began handing out educational materials and condoms at more than 320 senior centers, while urging all older New Yorkers to get tested for HIV as part of their regular checkups. Southern Florida's Senior HIV Intervention Project distributes prophylactics and safe-sex advice at Jewish community centers, assisted-living facilities, and bereavement group meetings. Program volunteer Miriam Schuler, an 88-year-old great-grandmother from Tamarac, Fla., often finds a little humor helps to wash down the warnings. "If a man comes up and sees the condoms, I tell him, 'Put one in your pocket; make your friends jealous!'" she says. "For women, I tell them to put some condoms in a dish on their coffee table as a conversation piece."