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Sammy Mack, HealthyState: How To Talk To Grandma About Sex [and HIV/AIDS]

How To Talk To Grandma About Sex [and HIV/AIDS]
by Sammy Mack, September 20, 2011

Let’s face it: talking about sex can be really awkward.

Talking about sex with your grandparents?

Super awkward. But also important, according to the Florida Department of Health.

This week marks the fourth annual National HIV/AIDS and Aging Awareness Day. And the FDOH is using it as a reminder that HIV doesn’t have an age limit. In 2009, a fifth of HIV cases and a quarter of new AIDS cases were in people over the age of 50. The state projects that by 2015, most HIV/AIDS cases will be found among people 50 years old and over.

Part of the graying of AIDS is because people are living longer with better medications to treat the virus. Part of it also has to do with older people staying sexually active longer – thanks to medications like Viagra and Cialis.

Public health officials think younger people can be an important part of preventing the virus in older people. We sat down with Marlene LaLota, HIV prevention director in the FDOH Bureau of HIV/AIDS, to get tips on how to have “the talk” with the older people in our social networks.

HS: How do you start that conversation?

LaLota: Well those are not easy conversations to have, particularly with older people because what works with one older person is not going to work with another older person.

Let me give you an example: in some families, a younger child – perhaps a teenager, a twenty-year-old – can have the conversation with their grandmother. Maybe the grandmother has lost her spouse and she’s ready to get back into the dating world. You could see where somebody who’s new to the dating scene versus somebody who is re-visiting the dating scene might have something in common. So that may be common ground to talk about: What is dating like for you? What was it like when you were my age? Here’s what it’s like now. There are things you need to know. The world has changed in the past 50 years. So that may be an appropriate strategy for some families.

In other cases, that conversation absolutely would not happen. The older person is not going to talk to their family members or to younger people about what they consider to be intensely private issues. So what we do is we try to use older people as peers to kind of reach other folks who may be reluctant to talk about this.

How do you know when it’s time to have that conversation?

Honestly, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you just sort of guess. Sometimes if there’s an older person in your life who’s new to the dating scene, that’s the time to have it.

It may be a simple act of a daughter who lovingly takes a condom in a compact and slips it in her mom’s purse and kind of makes a joke about it. Just in case, mom.

Whatever it takes to break the ice. It’s going to be embarrassing. Remember the roles were reversed once upon a time – where it was the mother having the conversation with the daughter 30 or 40 years ago.

It does turn that relationship on its ear. Are there differences in talking to an older adult as opposed to having “the talk” about HIV and aids with a teenager?

Absolutely, there definitely are differences. The first thing a young girl is going to think about is pregnancy. They’re not always thinking disease. That’s similar to older people.

But with older people, they’re not thinking about pregnancy or disease. They’re thinking they don’t have anything to worry about. Why do I need to use protection? I’m certainly not going to get pregnant. -Or- Oh, he’s an older man, he’s not the kind of person that gets HIV.

How frequently do you need to have this conversation?

Until it sinks in.

For some people what might be helpful is showing somebody a newspaper article. That may be all it takes. Maybe it’s just printing it out and leaving it on the table for your dad. Wow. Did you know HIV is such a big problem in older people in Florida? Hmm, I had no idea, that’s really interesting. I guess you really need to be careful out there, don’t you?

Anything that gets the ball rolling.

Culturally speaking, we tend to have a great discomfort with thinking of older people as sexually active. How does that discomfort affect people’s health?

I think in general our society is very uncomfortable talking about sex. I think for older people it’s magnified.

It’s just an innate discomfort. And I think it has an impact. If you bury your head in the sand and you don’t talk about it, you don’t think about it, you pretend it’s not happening, it causes problems down the road.

You know, if a woman becomes sexually active again after 50 years and she’s uncomfortable, she may not know. She may be mortified to think about walking into CVS and buying a pack of condoms.  Could you imagine how hard that would be for a 65-year-old woman to do that? So you don’t do it. She may not know there are agencies and health departments that you can go in and get it for free and it’s discreet.

This reporter can be reached at

Related Stories:

From Growing Up with HIV
From 30 Years of AIDS
From Intentionally Spreading HIV
From Rapid HIV Testing Preferred By Many
From Morning Rounds: Early Antiretroviral Drugs Can Reduce AIDS Transmission
From Florida May Restrict Access to HIV Help
From The South Is an Epicenter of HIV Infection
From Patients Hurt by AIDS Drug Cuts Can Still Find Help


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