CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — When older people start dating, they run into many of the same heart-pounding issues as the young, trying to decide when it’s time to talk – and when to make love.
That’s the word from older singles such as Emily Gordon, 73, a Carrboro, N.C., resident who’s on the dating scene and has started a community conversation about how older people could and should get together.
The conversation is vital: Whether younger people want to hear it or not, at least 20 per cent of older adults are sexually active. But these older sex partners can be at risk in a health-care world that tends to overlook their amorous activities.
On the emotional side, Gordon says, older people she has encountered most want a friend to talk to, then someone to date and, yes, a partner for something “beyond dating.”
“I believe sex is important in a relationship,” 75-year-old Wally Friedman of Chapel Hill, N.C., told prospective older daters at a recent public discussion. “But you two will have more verbal intercourse than sexual.”
For older people, particularly those who have lost spouses or partners, negotiating the dating world can present an unsettling conflict between long-ago experiences and present-day reality. Gordon, Friedman and Rita Berman, another Chapel Hill resident, gave advice based on their personal experiences, talking frankly and sometimes explicitly with audience members recently about dating and hooking up.
“Is it unreasonable to ask a man who seeks intimacy to have an AIDS test?” asked a written question submitted to the panel.
Sure, that’s fine, people said at the discussion.
According to health statistics, the questioner was definitely on to something. More than 700 residents 45 and older contracted HIV in North Carolina last year. They represented nearly 30 percent of the state’s new cases.
“If you are thinking about initiating a relationship, there’s a wonderful word called ’condom,’ “ Gordon said, adding that a sexually transmitted disease can be especially troublesome for an older person who already has health problems.
Dr. Racquel Daley-Placide, a geriatrician and clinical assistant professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill School of Medicine’s Division of Geriatrics, said many older people are poorly informed about how to protect themselves against sexually transmitted diseases.
“For them, growing up, the issue was pregnancy,” Daley-Placide said in a recent interview. “For younger people growing up now, the issues are pregnancy and a whole range of sexually transmitted diseases.
“Unfortunately, we don’t really target older people in our educational efforts regarding safe sex.”
With an aging population, questions and comments like those heard at the evening event will only become more common, perhaps eventually overcoming some younger people’s queasiness about the topic.
“There were younger people at my job who were horrified at the thought of my dating, and, God forbid, having sex,” Gordon said.
When Daley-Placide recently taught medical students during a class on sexuality in older people, she said, she began by asking whether the students’ parents and grandparents were having sex.
“Everybody got this really nauseated look on their faces,” she said. “They need to understand that that is a type of prejudice.”
Doctors need to be aware of older people’s sexuality, Daley-Placide said, or they risk missing important clues or diagnoses.
Americans’ increasing longevity means that many people are living for decades after they raise children and retire, and they still desire love and sometimes sex, said Jerry Passmore, director of the Orange County Department on Aging.
When he was studying gerontology 30 years ago, Passmore said, the picture was different.
“Back then, the textbooks were: You hit the empty-nest phase and then die,” he said.
Ann Johnson, 88, a prominent advocate of aging issues, raised a different demographic point: The notion that successful aging must include sex doesn’t take into account the degree to which women greatly outnumber men in later years, she said.
“How do you think it’s possible for every woman to have a partner?” she said. Participants half-seriously raised options including polygamy.
Daley-Placide, the UNC physician, held out hope that the much-maligned baby-boom generation will find a way to change perceptions about the hopes and desires of people in old age.
“They are more vibrant and very much more active in their communities,” she said. “They will show the younger generations they are just as worthy of having a healthy sex life as younger people.”