Sex and STIs: Why You Should Have ‘The Talk’ With Your Aging Parent

Here's how to get the conversation started

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, in a retirement setting or elsewhere, for the first time in decades,” notes Amanda Lathia, MD, an expert in geriatric medicine.

“In addition, treatments for sexual dysfunction have made it easier to enjoy being sexually active later in life.”

Older patients often ask their doctors 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 one.

How do you start the conversation?

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

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,” says Dr. Lathia. “Start the conversation lightly. A little humor or gentle nudging helps.”

For example, you can ask, “Are you dating?” or “Do you have a boyfriend?” People will often light up about something that is bringing new joy into their lives, and are often happy to talk about it.

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Or you can 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.

What should you say about STIs?

Societal views about sex and sexually transmitted infections (also known as sexually transmitted diseases, or 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,'” says Dr. Lathia. “But STDs can happen to anyone without proper protection.”

So education is a big deal. Plenty of older patients ask for STI screenings. They’re knowledgeable, and they’re honest about their sex lives. Those aren’t the people doctors worry about.

Instead, they worry about people who have a stigma about STIs. “As a family member, you can help break that stigma,” she says.

“It may be as simple as asking your mom or dad if they’re using sexual protection, such as condoms. Many older people think condoms are just for contraception.”

The conversation may be awkward, but remind your parent 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 STIs to others.

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“Keep in mind that oral sex can be quite common in older adults, due to erectile dysfunction and vaginal dryness — and that STIs can still be spread this way,” Dr. Lathia says.

Be sure to strike a positive note. Tell your parent that treatments for STIs today are much better than they used to be and, when diagnosed early, most STIs are quite treatable.

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 it’s safe to do so.

“If you usually accompany your parents to appointments, be sure to give them private time to discuss sexual matters with their doctors,” says Dr. Lathia.

It’s similar to the way parents should act with a teen at the doctor’s office; as long as parents are 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.

But if you can get the conversation started, you’ll be doing your part to ensure that your parent’s sex life will be a healthy one.

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