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Mark Radcliffe: 'Older people actually aren't always that old anymore'

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New research tells us that the over-50s are increasingly putting themselves at risk of sexually transmitted infections because they are not using condoms. More than one in ten of the over-50s interviewed admitted not using a condom despite being unaware of their partners’ sexual history.

STIs are on the rise across all age groups and of course this research raises many issues around the effectiveness of health education on this particular topic.

But before we think about such things, I wonder if it’s worth just stopping for a moment, reflecting on the information in full and saying something along the lines of, ‘Wahey! Let’s hear it for the over-50s!’

Of course we shouldn’t be surprised by this particular generation enjoying a burgeoning sex life. If you are in your early 50s you may have seen The Clash or The Sex Pistols, you may have marched against nuclear war, and you may have been one of the first generations to take the ‘sexual revolution’ for granted. In short, your relationship with convention was different from anything that went before. Once, 50-year-olds looked and acted a bit like June Whitfield. Today they look like Madonna.

However, the survey, conducted by Saga, was not just aimed at a bunch of former moshing 52-year-olds. It included people in their 60s, 70s and 80s. And a handful of gloriously energetic 90-year-olds. You may not want to think about your parents, let alone your grandparents, having sex but that doesn’t mean they aren’t having it.

This research isn’t just telling us about a rise in STIs in an age group not previously considered to be at high risk. It is reminding us that ‘older people’ actually aren’t always that old anymore. We have been taught that, as the population grows older, so does the demand on the health service. How will we cope with the care needs of an ageing population? And that economic concern compounds a sense of older people as being primarily a burden in what is eternally viewed as a young person’s world.

But it is a skewed picture. I was chatting to a 77-year-old neighbour recently who, having recovered from cancer, has grown bored of what she feels could become her permanent role of ‘old patient’, if she lets it.

‘People are assuming my needs will be ongoing,’ she said. ‘And they may but one of the best things I can do is to assume they won’t and get on with life.’ And so she took herself off to New Zealand on a hiking holiday for six weeks. I didn’t like to ask but she might pick up a man on the way.

We may well have cause to worry about how the health service is going to cope with our ageing population over the next 20 years but there is more to life than that. And rather than framing older people as an economic burden, it does us good to see them for what many of them are – slightly wrinkled people looking for a decent party.

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