Time to Have a Birds-and-Bees Chat With...Your Parents?

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This story was originally published on Advocates for Youth's Birds and Bees Blog.  

Anyone who has read my previous blogs (or any of the other blogs) on the Advocates Birds and Bees blog is pretty familiar with the bottom line – we think it’s really important to talk to your kids about sex. We acknowledge that these conversations can be awkward; after all, many of our parents never talked to us about sex. Still, we write these pieces full of encouragement and advice to persuade you to broach the subject – whether it is talking to them about STDs, teen pregnancy, and safer sex, or the more personal issues around body image, self esteem and relationships, what we really want you to do is talk to your kids openly, honestly, and often.

Today, however, I’m going to throw a little curve ball. Today, I’m going to suggest you have a similar conversation with your parents.

My inspiration for this is actually a brief public service announcement I heard on Howard Stern’s satellite radio show, of all places. The PSA began by saying “The Howard Stern show cares about HIV.” I wasn’t surprised to hear that, but what did surprise me was that the focus of the announcement was not on teens or young adults, but senior citizens in nursing homes. Howard Stern was reminding his listeners that seniors can also be at risk for HIV (and, most surprising of all, he did it without making a single joke about old people getting it on).

He’s right. While the 60+ set no longer has to worry about unintended pregnancies, they are not exempt from safer sex practices. Many seniors, often after being widowed or divorced, find themselves entering into new sexual relationships later in life. And as such, just like their teenage grandchildren, they too must be aware of the possibilities of STDs, including HIV. Yet, if there is one thing we as a society hate thinking and talking about even more than teens having sex, it’s older people having sex; especially our parents.

The PSA reminded me of a film I watched in graduate school that depicted an elderly couple (both presumably widowed) living in a nursing home who would sneak into each other’s rooms in the middle of the night to have sex. Eventually, they got caught. The home’s administrators summoned their adult children to deal with the “problem”  and threatened to kick the two seniors out if they did not start following the rules. The children, mortified by the meeting with administrators, spoke to their parents in the most condescending of ways and tried to convince them that they were too old for romance, and certainly for sex, and that maintaining their current living arrangement was much more important than this silly dalliance.

Our assignment after we watched the movie was to work in groups to change the scenario. First we had to rewrite the nursing home’s policies in order to acknowledge that its residents still had the desire and right to enter into sexual relationships. Then we had to re-script the conversations with their children to sound, well, more like conversations we sexuality educators suggest parents have with teenagers. We suggested that the children acknowledge that sex is a natural and healthy part of life (even if you’re over 65) and remind their parents of the importance of being safe.  

A few months later, I got to practice this type of conversation in real life. At the time, my grandmother, who had been widowed four years earlier, was dating two different men (to whom she introduced me as a “close family friend” lest they realize she was old enough to have a 25-year-old granddaughter). My grandmother and I had a more open relationship than most, even when it came to talking about sex – once when I asked if a boyfriend and I could borrow her apartment for a weekend while she was away, she reminded me that the couch in the den pulled out to a double bed and told me where I could find the right-sized sheets. Still, we’d never actually talked about her sex life.

The newly trained sex educator in me, however, couldn’t help but point out that if she was going to be dating, and especially if she was going to be dating more than one man at a time, she should stock up on condoms. I even offered to get them for her. Having discussed this in class, I was prepared for her to shrug off my suggestions by pointing out that she was decades past being fertile and that none of these men her age would have STDs. I could do nothing with first argument but had prepared counters to the second. Grandma’s reaction, however, threw me for a little bit of a loop. She said to me, in all seriousness: “I don’t have to worry about that, if I got HIV today, by the time I’d get sick, I’d be dead anyhow.” I regrouped and argued with that logic by reminding her that the drug protocols that keep HIV-positive individuals healthy are not so easy to follow and can have side effects, and then pointed out that it was more likely she’d be faced with something like chlamydia or gonorrhea which, though easily cured, would be unpleasant and therefore worth avoiding. I don’t remember her reply and I have no idea whether she ever did use condoms, but I’m still glad that we had the conversation.

Now, I’m not necessarily suggesting you go out and broach the subject with grandma at the next family reunion, but I would like you to take a second and think about your own parents. Are they widowed? Divorced? Is there a chance they might be in a sexual relationship now or in the near future?

As we age and our children age,  our parents age as well, and we often find ourselves in the role of taking care of them too—whether it’s helping them through a health crisis, keeping an eye on their finances, or teaching them how to use new-fangled tools like smart-phones and DVRs. These role-reversals are often uncomfortable and frustrating (my mother, who insisted on signing up for Facebook, will never really learn how to use it, just like she has never really learned how to use Word, and I lose my patience every time she asks me to remind how to post something).  Nonetheless, I’m suggesting adding another one to your to-do list.  Whether your parents talked to you about sex or not – when the time comes, it’s important that you talk to them about it.