Viagra Increases HIV risk in Seniors
Sex medications fuel HIV in the elderly
By: KRISTINA HERRNDOBLER, The Enterprise
Southeast Texas HIV/AIDS awareness workers say they have grown increasingly concerned about the virus - as well as other sexually transmitted diseases - spreading among seniors, including those in retirement communities and nursing homes.
A renewed sex life through erectile dysfunction drugs, combined with a lack of awareness, have put more seniors at risk, said David Asher, prevention coordinator at the Beaumont-based Triangle AIDS Network.
"You can thank Viagra and Cialis for that," Asher said. "The invention of these new drugs leaves sex the No. 1 thing on their minds."
A man in his mid-70s recently walked into the Triangle AIDS Network and tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, Asher said.
Many seniors still believe HIV/AIDS only affects homosexuals, he said, and with pregnancy no longer an issue, some seniors don't feel the need to use protection. Other seniors want to use protection, but have no access to it or don't know how to use it, Asher said.
Officials from both Triangle AIDS Network and Project AIDS Land Manor said it is rare for them to be invited or allowed to give sex education programs and pass out condoms in retirement communities and nursing homes.
And with HIV and AIDS affecting younger people at much higher rates, prevention workers mostly focus on younger populations, they said.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 1 million people were living with HIV at the end of 2003, the latest year for which statistics are available. Of those people, about one fourth are unaware of their infection. At least 40,000 people become infected with HIV each year, according to the CDC.
A CDC study that tracked new HIV cases in 33 states concluded that individuals 55 and older accounted for 8 percent of HIV diagnoses from 2001 through 2004.
"Although older Americans account for a relatively small proportion of new HIV diagnoses, it is important that seniors get information and services to help protect them from infection," said Jennifer Ruth, a CDC spokeswoman.
Seniors face unique prevention challenges, such as embarrassment in talking with physicians and partners about sexual behaviors and condom use, Ruth said.
Raintree Tower Apartments, which houses people from 18 years old through 93, has invited Triangle AIDS Network to pass out condoms and provide HIV testing at a health fair it hosts.
Jackie Andrus, the social services director there, said it is important to do on-site testing because some people would be too embarrassed to get tested otherwise. There are no condoms available to residents.
Because residents at Raintree do not have access to transportation, getting condoms may be difficult, Andrus said. But if any resident asks for them, the agency is asked back to the facility to distribute them, she said.
Becky Ames, executive director at Atria Collier Park, said the retirement and assisted-living facility has not had sex education courses on site and does not give out condoms to residents.
"I've never had anyone ask for them," she said.
About 35 percent to 40 percent of people have a car, and everyone has access to transportation to drug stores and other shopping centers where condoms could be purchased, she said.
If anyone wanted sex education services on site, Ames said she believes they would ask for it. She said there is even a suggestion box where residents could ask for such things anonymously.
Atria Collier Park has dances and other outings to keep residents active and social, Ames said.
"We have had a lot of residents meet new people here and seem to have a very good relationship with them, but we do respect their privacy and do not get involved in that aspect of their lives," she said.
Jim Campbell, president of the Boston-based National Association on HIV over 50, said it is naive to think that seniors do not have intimate relationships.
"People don't stop wanting to be touched and loved the older they get," Campbell said. "And that is part of it."
Because seniors are not thought to be at risk, they are often diagnosed very late in the disease, Campbell said. Many times HIV has progressed into full-blown AIDS before doctors check for it, he said. With already vulnerable immune systems, the prognosis can be particularly scary.
But if diagnosed in time, they can do very well on medication, he said.
Sheryl Ferguson, a risk reduction specialist at Project AIDS Land Manor, said other types of sexually transmitted diseases also spread among seniors. She said these diseases can be brought into a community through encounters with sex workers and then spread quickly throughout communities.
In such cases, she said it is important people get tested because "nothing is going to cure itself."
Although it may be difficult to talk to seniors about their sexual habits, Asher said communication is key.
"Most people have a hard enough time thinking about their parents having sex, much less their grandparents. That is just something we've grown as a society to believe that is something the elderly don't do," he said. "They were incapable, but now they are capable again."
Asher said a lot of dating is going on in senior-living facilities, where many people are widowed.
"For lack of a better word, it is one big singles club for those healthy enough to participate."
Newly widowed Martha Salim, 77, said she is aware of the risks of sexually transmitted diseases. But the retired health teacher said not every senior might be as informed as she is, and some might not think about protection.
"They think child-bearing age is over, and so there is no need," she said.
Salim, whose husband of 56 years died in July, said she isn't interested in dating at all.
"It is just a jungle out there and I don't want to get involved," she said, adding that men can be very forward.
Salim lives in a single-family home, and her circle of friends includes other widows, she said. She said it is possible that seniors who live in retirement communities are more likely to get in new relationships.
Helen Smith, 75, said she hasn't been on a date since her husband died five years ago.
"I am not shopping for a date," she said. "If I was going to mess around, I would be careful about who I did it with."
Smith credited her daughter, who is in the medical field, for educating her about sexually transmitted diseases.
Seniors do talk and think about sex, she said.
"We're not dead yet," she said. "If my husband was still alive, I would probably be actively involved in having sex."