Over-age sex

'The last thing older people need is a government campaign to educate them about their sexual health needs.'

Ann Furedi

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Topics Politics

As if the UK government wasn’t doing enough to lecture us all about the need to be sexually responsible, there are now calls for a new safe sex campaign – aimed at the over-65s.

The charity Help the Aged is heading up the campaign in response to a rise in sexually transmitted infections among the elderly. ‘This should come out of the closet’, insists Tessa Harding, head of policy at Help the Aged. She is concerned that ‘there’s very little public or professional recognition of the sexual health of older people. It’s not one of those topics people want to talk about’.

Harding is right to observe that sex and the elderly is not a ‘hot issue’ for policymakers, who are usually too busy being obsessed with pregnant teenagers to be concerned about anybody older than 19. She’s also right that people assume that once a person reaches a certain age, a mug of cocoa is usually considered a more appropriate bedtime companion than a box of condoms.

Of course, this should not necessarily be the case. Men and women live longer, healthier lives, and pensioners are staying younger for longer. Many look forward to retirement as a time when the kids have left home, they are free from the stress and discipline of work and can spend time doing what they want to. And a special part of what they want to do may well be sex – free from the fear of pregnancy. Add to that the fact of increased divorce rates, meaning perhaps a new partner, and it is not hard to imagine passion in the twilight years.

Today’s sixty-somethings are just not old – and besides, even when you’re old, today you can still be sufficiently well-preserved to be sexy. I can’t believe I’m the only woman on the planet who, given the choice of a night of passion with Leonardo DiCaprio or Clint Eastwood, would bed the older guy.

This latest fad of concern about promiscuous oldies has been prompted by the discovery of an increase in the rate of sexually transmitted infections among pensioners. Sexual infections have been on the increase throughout the population – but particularly, it seems, among pensioners. While in the whole population rates of gonorrhoea and syphilis have increased by 55 percent since 1995, in the 65-plus age group the rise is more than 300 percent.

This appears to be a trend in both the UK and the USA. American sexual health experts are very exercised about it – and where they lead, we follow. In early April the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta reported that the incidence of HIV in older people is increasing at twice the rate of incidence in younger people (although, admittedly, their definition of ‘older’ began at 50!).

But a rise in the number of reported cases of sexual infections among pensioners does not necessarily mean more people are infected. It could mean that the stigma of attending a sexually transmitted disease (STD) clinic is declining. It could mean that more men are accessing healthcare services, allowing more infections to be detected. It could be that the discussions about ‘sex and the older man’ that accompanied the marketing of viagra and other impotence treatments have made it easier for men to discuss sex-related complaints.

As agony aunt Claire Rayner pithily explains, ‘Years ago an older man who caught a dose of the clap from a prostitute would not be contacting his doctor. People were stoical and not over-keen to present themselves for treatment, but now more people are prepared to seek help’.

Regardless of the reasons why more pensioners are seeking cures for the clap, however, one thing is certain. The last thing older people need is some patronising government campaign to educate them about their sexual health needs. Nobody can accuse pensioners of being too young to be aware of the consequences of their actions.

In an article discussing the concerns of Help the Aged, one worker from a north London care home told the UK Observer that ‘residents being found entwined’ was ‘a not uncommon embarrassment for visitors’ (1). In 2000, the paper was told, four elderly people had been asked to move out after being caught in ‘a midnight orgy’ in the dayroom.

Meanwhile, according to BBC News Online on 17 April 2001, the UK Residents and Relatives Association is calling for care homes to set aside special rooms, so that elderly residents can have sex in private (2). ‘There is an ageist assumption that older people are not longer interested in intimacy, and this is simply not true’, said Julia Burton-Jones for the charity.

If Help the Aged wants to recognise ‘mature sexuality’, maybe it would do better using its time and resources to convince care home workers that residents’ participation in a midnight dayroom orgy should be a cause of congratulation, not expulsion.

(1) Over-65s ignore safe sex warnings, Observer, 8 April 2001

(2) See BBC News Online, 17 April 2001

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Topics Politics