At nursing homes around New Orleans, seniors are doing more than just having luncheons and playing Scrabble.
Statistics show that behind closed doors, folks at places like Good Samaritan Rehabilitation and Nursing Center and other nursing homes around the city are getting intimate with their peers. Eighty percent of 50- to 90-year-olds are sexually active, according to Dr. Neil Baum, a People's Health physician and urologist who has written extensively about senior citizens' sexual health. Elderly care directors and doctors encourage those relationships — as long as members practice safe and responsible sex.
"This is their home, and they have a right to be loved, a right to privacy and a right to intimacy," says Connie Elzey Kurz, an administrator and registered nurse at Good Samaritan. "They are adults."
However, Kurz maintains it's extremely important to educate seniors about safe sex. That includes having physicians on hand to make sure seniors are able to make appropriate decisions about sex and ensure they have counselors with whom they feel safe to talk.
With a rise in sexually transmitted infections among seniors, nurses like Kurz —who make an effort to educate the elderly about sexual health — are on the right track, according to Baum.
Baum says the number of seniors having sex has risen in recent years, but those seniors aren't always educated on how to make the best safe sex choices.
"Many people want and need to be close to others as they grow older," Baum says. "This includes the desire to continue an active, satisfying sex life. However, age does not protect you from sexually transmitted infections."
In terms of the number of seniors contracting STIs, Baum points to recent research. According to researchers who wrote an editorial in the Student British Medical Journal, rates of sexually transmitted diseases have doubled among 50- to 90-year-olds since 2000.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also has statistics on the subject. According to the CDC, 19,000 people over age 45 were diagnosed with chlamydia in 2010, versus 6,700 in 2000.
The problem doesn't stop at chlamydia. There were more than 2,500 cases of syphilis reported in 45- to 64-year-olds in 2010, versus 885 in 2000, according to the CDC.
The number of older people who have contracted sexually transmitted infections may be even higher because seniors don't get tested on a regular basis, according to the National Institute of Aging (NIA), which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It reports that nearly one-fourth of all people known to have HIV/AIDS in this country are 50 and older. In 2005, the last time the CDC calculated the statistic, 15 percent of all new HIV/AIDS diagnoses were among people older than 50.
"Older people often mistake signs of HIV/AIDS for the aches and pains of normal aging, so they are less likely than younger people to get tested for the disease," according to the NIA's website. "Also, they may be ashamed or afraid of being tested."
Older people who are sexually active may be at risk for other diseases such as gonorrhea, genital herpes, hepatitis B, genital warts and trichomoniasis, Baum says.
Changing the course of history
According to Baum, the senior citizen population is growing faster than any other age group in the United States. And that population is having a lot more sex.
Part of the reason, he adds, is because in 1998, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration changed the course of history by approving Viagra, making it easier for seniors to consummate sex.
But that's not the only reason there are more statistics about elderly people having sex, Baum says. It's also because the baby boomer generation is now older.
"Baby boomers are much more interested in health and well-being," Baum says, adding that sex is good for healthy adults who are older. "When you feel isolated or no one hugs you or touches you it adds to your isolation, and emotional depression can set in. Socialization including touching, kissing, hugging — all of that is very important."
According to Helpguide.org, a nonprofit that provides mental health information, older people are far more comfortable now with the idea of having sex.
"Older people often have a great deal more self-confidence and self-awareness, and feel released from the unrealistic ideals of youth and prejudices of others," according to HelpGuide.
Baum says doctors have only recently started "getting numbers" on senior sex.
He has advocated for increased awareness about STI transmission amongst seniors, but that's not all. In general, he says, there are a lot of misconceptions about senior sex.
For example, just because older men may not get an erection easily doesn't mean seniors aren't having sex.
"The thing that is interesting about seniors is they're not as focused on having intercourse," Baum says. "These people are looking at quality of lovemaking. Extended kissing and cuddling and touching are very important to seniors."
That doesn't mean they are at any less risk for contracting STIs.
Not all senior centers report an uptick in senior sex. Peggy Hoffman, executive director for the Covenant Nursing Home, says STIs haven't been a problem there recently due to lack of sexual activity in the facility. Kathy Marlowe, director of nursing at Jefferson Healthcare Center, says the same.
But Hoffman agrees it's important for senior and healthcare centers to have supportive care, in case those populations decide to become sexually active.
"We're supposed to be supportive and encouraging and open-minded," Hoffman says.
There have been some advances in preventing STIs in the elderly in the past couple of years, according to medical information provided by sources like Medicare.
In 2012, Medicare Part B added STI screenings to its list of preventative services, allowing seniors to get tested for chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis and hepatitis B once every 12 months. The service provides up to two behavioral counseling sessions if participants have an increased risk of infection, according to United Healthcare's Medicare Made Clear blog
And some centers, such as Good Samaritan, even provide free condoms, according to Kurz.
Not all medical practitioners have caught up with the times, Baum says, adding that far too few primary physicians are willing to initiate a conversation about safe sex with seniors.
"More education is needed," Baum says. "There are very few sex therapists in the area. And primary care doctors are out there with their boots on the ground, in the forefront. It's important they educate people about getting tested for STIs before intercourse."