How to Have ‘The Talk’ About Sex With Your Aging Parents

Practical advice for an important conversation

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Do you remember sitting awkwardly as your mom or dad told you about sex? For many, this conversation — though uncomfortable — was a rite of passage.

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Now imagine switching roles. Your dad or mom is single and sexually active late in life, and it’s time for you to talk about sexual responsibility and protection. Are you ready?

This conversation is increasingly common. A generation of people is living longer — and healthier — than ever. Many people outlive their spouses and find themselves dating again, either in a retirement setting or otherwise, for the first time in decades. On top of that, treatments for sexual dysfunction have made it easier to enjoy an active sex life later in life.

I see this in my practice, where older patients often ask me about screenings and protection. But family members have a role to play, too. Here’s a little practical advice for bringing up a difficult but important topic with your loved ones.

“Start the conversation lightly. A little humor or gentle nudging helps. You ask, ‘Are you dating?’ or ‘Do you have a boyfriend?’ and certain people just light up.”

Kathryn Teng

Kathryn Teng, MD

Center for Personalized Healthcare

Remind them the landscape has changed

Imagine you were married to the same person for decades, for example, but now you are divorced or widowed. You never worried about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) before — and you likely aren’t up to date on the latest in STD prevention.

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Many people in this position don’t know where to turn for information. You, as a family member, can at least provide a starting point.

Start the conversation lightly. A little humor or gentle nudging helps. You ask, “Are you dating?” or “Do you have a boyfriend?” and certain people just light up. It shows you are truly interested in a topic that is bringing new joy into their lives.

You can also make a more specific observation: “Mom, I notice you’re spending a lot of time with a new friend. Are things getting serious?” This opens the door for a more detailed conversation.

Break through misconceptions

Societal views about sex and STDs differ from decades ago. Those differences may affect your parents’ views. Too many people think: I’m a clean, decent person, so it won’t happen to me. But STDs can happen to anyone without the proper protection.

Education is a big deal. I have plenty of older patients who ask for STD screenings. They’re knowledgeable, and they’re honest about their sex lives. They’re also not the ones I worry about.

Instead, I worry about people who have a stigma about STDs. As a family member, you can help break that stigma. It may be as simple as asking your mom or dad if they’re using sexual protection such as condoms.

I know that can be awkward. But remind your parents that things have changed since they were younger. Point out that you never truly know another person’s sexual history, no matter their outward appearance. Remind them that everyone has a responsibility to make sure they’re not spreading STDs to others.

Strike a positive note, too: Treatments for STDs today are much better than they used to be. And if diagnosed early, most are quite treatable.

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Steer them to the doctor

You know your own comfort level and how deep you are willing to go with “the talk.” Ultimately, you can help steer your parents to a doctor for medical help.

Doctors provide a safe haven for people to talk about their sex lives. But that’s only true if a patient feels safe. So, if you usually accompany your parents to appointments, be sure to give them private time to discuss sexual matters with their doctors.

It’s similar to the way a parent should act with a teenager at a pediatrician’s office. If the parent is still in the room, a frank conversation about sex is highly unlikely.

With privacy, doctors can help patients figure out which screenings may be beneficial, offer advice on sexual protection and more. If you can help get the conversation started, you will have done your part to ensure that an active aging sex life is also a healthy one.

 

Kathryn Teng, MD

Kathryn Teng, MD

Kathryn Teng, MD, is Director of the Center for Personalized Healthcare and leads Cleveland Clinic’s efforts to integrate personalized healthcare into standard practice.
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