Is it time to have ‘the sex talk’ with grandma and grandpa?

As sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in people aged 60 and older continue to trend upwards, a cheeky new campaign called ‘F#cking Old’ is encouraging seniors and those who care about them to engage in conversations about safer sex.

Launched by condom company Jems last week to mark STI awareness month, the initiative encourages seniors to unwrap specially designed hard candies featuring safer sex messaging. 

The aim is to foster conversations around seniors “wrapping it up” to make sure they’re “f#cking safe.” Younger Canadians who are comfortable talking openly about sex are especially being encouraged to speak to their elders about safer sex. 

Public Health Agency of Canada data shows that from 2011 to 2020, there was a 176% increase in gonorrhea cases in people 60 years and older, a 62% increase in syphilis, and a 42% bump in chlamydia cases in that age group. 

The campaign notes that the rise in cases can be attributed to the many seniors leaving long-term, monogamous relationships and entering the dating scene unaware of the risks associated with STIs and hookup culture.

“Talking about sex with your parents or grandparents may be awkward, but frankly, has never been more necessary,” F#cking Old campaign partner Jane Johanson said in a media release.  

‘Often don’t understand the risks’

Many Canadians of a certain generation are likely familiar with Johanson’s mother, Sue Johanson. She hosted the popular Sunday Night Sex Show, a live call-in program that aired on Canadian television from 1996 to 2005. 

A sex educator and registered nurse, Johanson offered straightforward advice about everything from safe sex and sex toys to spicing up your love life. Her daughter Jane co-created a documentary about her mother called Sex with Sue that won best documentary program at the Canadian Screen Awards earlier this month. 

Like her mother, she’s not shy about tackling taboo topics.

“This campaign is about harnessing the power of Gen Z who talk about sex easily, and often over their vast social media networks, to bring that conversation to the older generation who often don’t understand their risks,” Jane Johanson said.

‘Obviously been happening the whole time’

Abbey Ferguson, executive director of the Halifax Sexual Health Centre (HSHC) and a fan of Sue Johanson’s former show, was happy to hear about the campaign to raise awareness about seniors and sexual health. She said it’s important to “never sweep sexual health under the rug.” 

A woman with shoulder length light brown hair wearing a sleeveless black, white and gold geometric patterned top and black pants smiles with a background of brightly lit green foliage as her backdrop. She's leaning into the camera slightly, smiling and looking off to the right of the camera.
Abbey Ferguson. Credit: Contributed

“If we’re not chatting about it, it’s just going to make it much more uncomfortable if you are in a scenario where you know your grandparents are sleeping with different people at a long-term care facility or you are a CCA and you end up walking in on some clients having sex and you don’t know how to navigate that conversation,” Ferguson said in an interview. 

“That’s just going to lead to more awkwardness and discomfort when really it’s normal. It’s not like we’ve only just started having sex in our senior years now. This has obviously been happening the whole time, but now we’re willing to chat more about it and folks are getting tested just enough for us to catch those rates.”

Bacterium do not care

Ferguson said there’s a belief among some seniors that once the need to protect themselves against pregnancy is out of the way, they’re good to go.

“You don’t really think about protection or the idea that STIs are even possible in an older population,” Ferguson said. “It feels like something inherently young, even though it obviously isn’t. Bacterium do not care.” 

Ferguson said when it comes to increasing STI rates in seniors, it’s important to remember that while the increases look scary, they’re percentile based. Because the rates were initially very low, any increase appears alarming.

“It doesn’t mean that every one of your grandparents definitely has syphilis or anything like that,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean that it’s not still an important increase.”

While Ferguson hasn’t seen any particular trends around seniors’ sexual health emerging at the HSHC, she said things have changed for the better in recent years. She recalled how when she first began working at the health centre seven years ago, it was common for the lab to deny an STI test for a woman over the age of 65.

“The reason (was) that we don’t do that for them because they were not at high risk,” she said. “That has definitely changed. You would never see that now. But that used to be the standard practice for a long time.”

Myths often taught as fact

When it comes to rising STI rates among seniors, Ferguson said it’s often connected to them re-entering the dating field as social mores around sexuality have loosened up. A dramatically aging population and a shifting culture around who’s single, when they’re single, and where dating and sexual activity is happening also plays a role.  

“So the older folks that we do have now might be more open to the idea of exploring their sexuality in other contexts, whether that’s dating or it’s having sex with the folks in their long-term care facilities,” Ferguson said.

“You can kind of think of it like a dorm room, right? We see increased STI rates in folks around university age. We have a lot of sexual partners, lots of folks just within reach that we can be having sex with. That is exactly what a seniors’ living situation can look like.”

Ferguson said it’s often the case that today’s grandparents likely didn’t receive much in the way of quality sex education. She points to many myths that were once taught as fact.

“A lot of those have died, things like masturbating will cause hair on your palms,” she said. “But some of those myths were taught in earnest, and folks internalized those messages. So I think it would be nice to free up those conversations within your family.”

Taboo talk

Ferguson said talking about safer sex and sexual health for seniors is still far too often taboo. There can be discomfort around family members who find it difficult when a relationship ends due to a death or divorce that comes late in life. 

“That can be really challenging for adult children and grandchildren to conceptualize and be okay with the idea that maybe grandma is returning to the dating field, even though she’s in her early eighties,” Ferguson said.

“We don’t like to think about our parents, let alone our grandparents, being sexually active adults. As a culture we have a (squeamishness) towards sexuality as a whole. So the idea of getting into it with folks who are older, it just leads to this idea of blech.” 

‘Can spread farther than you think’

People with uteruses and cervixes still need pap tests up to the age of 69. Ferguson said that’s a great opportunity to discuss with a physician issues of sexual health and related concerns that come with aging. 

“We always recommend getting tested once a year, or at least every three years when you’re getting your pap anyway, just in case. Because unfortunately there are scenarios in which perhaps you never got tested with your partner that’s long term, or there is an unfaithful type situation, which can come up,” she said. 

“It’s quite possible that even folks in those long-term relationships have been carrying an STI for a long period of time. Once you’re in a different setting, such as long-term care, where there are a lot of partners available to you, that can spread farther than you think.”

Ferguson recommends seniors and those who love them turn to legitimate sources for information about seniors and sexual health, STIs, and safer sex. She points to local sexual health centres like the HSHC and its website along with the federal government’s website for information and details about STIs. 

She also urges people to check out the Sheet Harbour Sexual Health Centre’s ‘Sex Over Sixty” guide. 

“Even if you pick one up and then slyly leave that with the bathroom magazines or coffee table book at your grandparent’s house,” she said. “I think if you can muster yourself to talk about it with your family, you can find that that can be really rewarding.”

Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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  1. Seems like parents would not be comfortable talking about sex with their teens and now they are not comfortable talking about it with their parents.

    Let’s face it no one wants to even think about grandma doing the nasty never mind talk to her about it.