May 30, 2002
It could be a scene out of any high school health class -- but when Florida public health official Colette Vallee delivers her "Condom 101" lectures, her audiences are not teens but retirees, mostly in their 60s or 70s. Their grandchildren, born in the age of AIDS, began learning about safe sex in grade school. But "many adults in their 60s have never even seen a condom," Vallee said.
That naiveté is one reason HIV rates among the elderly are rising, especially as Viagra increases their sexual activity. To reduce the rates, Vallee brings sex ed to the geriatric set. Like an anthropologist back from the field, Vallee tells tales of seniors' sex lives that are far from sedentary: "Condo Casanovas" who exploit the skewed female-to-male ratio of retirement communities; a prostitute who sneaks into a senior housing complex by delivering meals.
During a recent seminar at a Tampa senior housing facility, Vallee began by asking why the audience might believe they can't get AIDS. "We're too old!" shouted Rosa Simmons, 63. Vallee assured them they are not, then pulled out some condoms to dispel the myths that they smell bad or won't fit. She showed off dental dams, flavored lubricants and female condoms, which she said are particularly well suited for the elderly because they reduce vaginal irritation. Some in the audience grew uncomfortable when Valle discussed safer oral and anal sex. "Some of us are Christians, so tone it down a bit," one man said as he left. Most audience members were bashful about picking up the samples, or agreed to take them "for the grandkids." But once a photographer left, the shyness ebbed and the crowd of two dozen walked off with 350 condoms -- mostly flavored or glow-in-the-dark varieties.