The mixture of divorced seniors and online dating has helped spark a growing health concern – sexually transmitted diseases in those 50 and older – along with a new effort aimed at educating seniors about safe sex.
“There is this conversation that needs to begin to occur,” said Bambi Gaddist, executive director of the South Carolina HIV/AIDS Council. “We have avoided it. We have run from it. It has had this cloak of secrecy that hopefully now will come out from behind the curtain.”
Many seniors aren’t comfortable talking about sex with their physicians, their adult children or even their new sexual partners. That reluctance is one component contributing to the doubling of syphilis diagnoses and tripling of chlamydia diagnoses from 2000 to 2010 among ages 55-64. In recent years, 17 percent of new HIV diagnoses have been among people 50 and older.
“And the numbers really are far greater because older people are not being tested,” said Patricia Weitzman, senior research specialist with Environment and Health Group, said during a symposium at IT-ology Wednesday.
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Weitzman began working on the issue with Sue Levkoff in Massachusetts before Levkoff took a SmartState Endowed Chair at the University of South Carolina. Now they are working on it from two bases, starting with a National Institute on Aging grant that helped pay for an educational website, www.divorceafter50.com.
Because of the rising number of seniors using online dating sites, a website seemed like “an ideal way to deliver safe sex information to women who don’t know they’re at risk,” Levkoff said. “Many people over 50 think ‘safe sex’ is primarily about avoiding pregnancy, but it’s really about protecting your overall health.”
The website provides loads of information on divorce, dating, sex and health. Videos detail the compelling stories of five senior women navigating the dating world.
The Environment and Health Group effort for now is aimed primarily at divorced women, but Levkoff envisions it expanding to bring in widows along with men re-entering the dating pool after age 50.
Those groups “are less likely than their younger counterparts to practice safe sex,” Gaddist said. “There’s a behavioral, attitudinal, societal stigma attached (to asking questions about sexually transmitted diseases), but there’s also an embarrassment. ... This is difficult to address unless we address the secret that sex is alive and well for people over 55.”