Skip to main content

A couple with greying hair hugging.Getty Images

If Dr. Dorree Lynn had her way, grownups and their kids would be plunking down on sofas across North America to discuss safe sex. But don't assume the parents would be doing all the talking. Instead, they might be the ones taking notes.

"Older adults are of the generation that think of condoms only as a means to avoid pregnancy," says the American psychologist, sexuality expert and author of Sex for Grownups: Dr. Dorree Reveals the Truth, Lies, and Must-Tries for Great Sex After 50. Once the fear of unwanted pregnancy wanes when menopause hits, out go the Trojans.

But condoms also protect against anything from Chlamydia to genital herpes, gonorrhea and HIV. Still, according to Statistics Canada, the older a single person is, the less likely he or she is to use a condom when having sex. What's more, between 1997 and 2007, sexually transmitted infection rates rose faster for middle-aged Canadians than for their younger peers.

That higher rate could be attributed to more testing as doctors become aware of the issue, says Dr. Alex McKay, research co-ordinator at the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada in Toronto. It could even be chalked up to better testing technology resulting in more positive results.

Or, it's possible it's a direct result of how people behave under the sheets.

"There's a growing conviction among this generation that a healthy and active sex life is something they are entitled to, but the message that they need to take precautions is being lost," he says.

Condom conundrum

Little research has been done to uncover why the zoomer generation is playing fast and loose with prophylactics, but sex experts like Dr. Robin Milhausen, an associate professor of sexuality and family relations at the University of Guelph, believes shame is partly to blame.

"You might be embarrassed to walk into your Shoppers Drug Mart, especially if you haven't purchased condoms in decades," she says.

Young people often don't feel the same sense of awkwardness, especially those on university or college campuses. If all their friends are hitting the school wellness centre, popping into a sex clinic, or waking up their residence don at midnight for a handful of condoms, why not do it, too?

Teens and young adults are also bombarded with safe sex messages and campaigns at school, on the subway and at doctors' offices. But their parents or grandparents? They're on their own.

"We're not doing bad [informing]the young folks, but terribly with the older ones," says Dr. Lori Brotto, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of British Columbia and psychologist in Vancouver.

Then there's the conversation between sexual partners. Negotiating condom use with another person is a tricky matter, and for those who haven't had practice, they find it a difficult topic to broach. Asking their new fling about previous encounters and whether they've been tested, even more so.

It's all about attitude

"The main issue is that we don't think of older adults as sexual. That has all kinds of consequences," says Dr. Milhausen.

For instance, doctors and public-health nurses may shy away from giving a 56-year-old, newly divorced patient sex education when she's in for her yearly physical - even though she mentions she's ready to hit the dating scene. Meanwhile, her daughter is likely to walk out the door with a pocketful of pamphlets and a list of websites to check out.

Self-image comes in to play as well.

"If you don't think of yourself as sexual, you're not going to get condoms. You have to think of yourself as sexual in the first place to want to protect your sexual health," Dr. Milhausen says.

Ban the blahs

So what's the best way to turn up the sexual wattage and get back in the groove safely? Change your attitude, advises Dr. Lynn - and opt for a healthy dose of realism.

"You can't expect yourself to be an acrobat the way you were when you were 22. You're not going to go 16 times a night," she says.

And those extra pounds creeping up around your middle? Forget about them. Your husband, wife, or date sitting across from you at dinner has probably gained a few, too.

The solution to eliminating sexual blahs is exercise. Whether it's yoga, Pilates, strength training or swimming, exercise can make a fundamental difference to sexuality, she says.

"It makes you feel better about yourself so you feel sexier. And if you feel sexier, you are sexier," says Dr. Lynn.

Just don't forget the condoms.

STI signs

It's not always easy to tell if you or your partner has a sexually transmitted infection since many don't have symptoms. But talk to your doctor if you show any one of these warning signs:

•A burning sensation when you urinate or you need to urinate more often.

•Itching or sores, small bumps or blisters in your genital area.

•Unusual discharge.

•Lower abdominal pain.

•Testicle pain.

•Bleeding after intercourse or between periods.

•Pain during intercourse.

Source: Peel Public Health

Special to The Globe and Mail