The condom bowl at the Central Harlem Senior Citizens Coalition was empty again. “I’ve been telling my daughters about it,” said Alberta Woods, 67. “I said, ‘You’re not going to believe what’s going on with the seniors.’”
What’s going on, at the Harlem senior center and elsewhere, is that seniors are having sex. More than ever, they’re also contending with HIV and AIDS: Of the 11,567 people living with HIV/AIDS in uptown Manhattan, 41 percent are over 50, according to 2010 city statistics. In 2001, the figure was only 23 percent.
Part of the increase stems from people living longer with the disease. But uptown residents over 50 also constituted 22 percent of new diagnoses, most often as a result of unprotected sexual activity. “I believe it’s a change in practices. Possibly carefree attitudes and not realizing that though you’re a senior you’re still at risk,” said Jonathan Carrington of the coalition.
Local AIDS organizations, aware of the changing face of the epidemic, have begun targeting older people for outreach, visiting senior centers throughout the city to educate staff and clients about prevention and treatment. The AIDS Community Research Initiative of America has conducted trainings for approximately 400 New York aging agencies over the past four years, according to HIV health literacy program director Luis Scaccabarrozzi.
“The first couple of years was about creating awareness,” Scaccabarrozzi said.
But programs began just this year at the central Harlem coalition, with six sessions focusing on prevention techniques like contraception as well as treatment options. The workshops have proven popular.
“I find that it’s been pretty good,” said Richard Jennings, 69. “You learn a lot.”
Jennings’s brother died from AIDS in the late 1990s. Since about 2003 he’s been getting tested regularly — better safe than sorry, he said — and he was adamant about the programs’ value for seniors.
“I don’t think they discuss it enough,” Jennings said of HIV/AIDS. “When they found out what AIDS was all about, there was a lot of discussion on the news.”
“Now,” he said, “people tend to forget because they don’t hear it a lot.”
Woods, also a regular at the Harlem center’s HIV awareness workshops, said she’d been stunned to learn how sexually active seniors are — and how prevalent HIV is among the older population. “I really didn’t know they were getting it like that till I started coming here,” she said. “I was like ‘Wooow!’”
Several uptown senior centers said they offered no such programs, but where they’ve been held they’ve been largely well-received, especially when free condoms are involved.
“I thought people would be embarrassed about getting condoms,” said Fern Hertzberg, director of the ARC XVI Fort Washington Senior Center in Washington Heights, which hosts several presentations a year. “Instead, it’s become a badge of honor, like ‘Oh, I’m active.’”
Despite some initial awkwardness, Hertzberg said, “people are willing to hear what the professionals have to say about it.”
At the ARC center and others, the AIDS presentations have become just another component of standard health discussions.
“One month they will talk about AIDS. One month they will do blood pressure. Next month they might do cancer,” said Sylmeta Donaldson, director of the Hamilton Grange Senior Citizen Center, part of the Convent Avenue Baptist Church.
Still, some long-held misperceptions have proved difficult to change. Service providers were initially skeptical about HIV/AIDS programs, believing they were not relevant to their clients, Scaccabarrozzi said.
And seniors themselves can be reluctant to practice safe sex because of a sense of sexual invincibility inspired by old age, said Ty Martin of the group Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Elders (SAGE).
“Many women, why would they want to use a condom? They’re not going to have babies,” he said. “Many men, why would they want to use a condom if it’s going to…add to erectile dysfunction ?”
Moreover, seniors’ sexual awareness often remains inadequate.
A June survey of 1524 adults by the Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation found that only 20 percent of those over 65 have ever talked to a doctor or other health care provider about HIV/AIDS.
Seniors also remained unclear about how the virus is transmitted: Almost half answered, incorrectly, that HIV can be contracted by sharing a drinking glass, and 28 percent said it can be transmitted by touching a toilet seat.
Older adults who do test positive for HIV also often feel embarrassed about contracting the disease despite so much global awareness.
“A lot of it has to do with shame,” said Martin. “‘How could you get positive at 60? Like duh, what planet were you living on for the last 30 years?’”
At the Harlem center, though, the half dozen or so seniors who’d gathered for a discussion dismissed any notion of a taboo surrounding sex or AIDS. “It’s an open thing now,” said Woods. “You know how years ago sex was like hush-hush? Today everything goes.”
“They’re quite open and frank in their discussions,” added Carrington. “They don’t bite their tongues. They make me blush and I’m much younger than a lot of them.”
Information sessions, the seniors said, were always beneficial.
“They should have them at all the centers,” said Woods, who planned to pass on what she’d learned to her family and friends. “I’m almost ready to tell my great grandkids now.”