The blaring headline in last Sunday's New York Times was hard for someone like me who writes about aging to ignore: Sex and the Single Senior.
In addition, the Op-ed was written by Ezekiel Emanuel, famous oncologist brother of the current Chicago mayor and former adviser to President Barack Obama.
Although I didn't know on Sunday and still don't know today how expertise in cancer relates to knowledge of STDs in elders, the story's placement in the newspaper of record made it a must read.
It does not start off well. Emanuel's lead sentence is so demeaning to elders that my first thought was (and remains) that I can't trust anything else he says. Here's that first paragraph:
”What is happening in retirement communities, assisted living facilities and nursing homes? You might imagine quiet reading, crossword puzzles, bingo, maybe some shuffleboard. Think again. Think about sex — unsafe sex.”
Don't you just want to smack him? Not only does he believe old people are dozing away their dotage, he thinks we're stupid about sex too. It gets worse.
It appears that Emanuel is a prude about old people enjoying any sex at all. A friend, he writes, told him that when her father moved into an assisted living residence,
”...three women came by to introduce themselves within 30 minutes. And it wasn’t to compare Medicare pharmacy plans and premiums.”
Eew! We can't have elders of the opposite sex interested in one another in that way, can we.
Further, he – a physician - seems to believe that sex among elders is a new phenomenon:
”...older people are living longer and are in better health. As a result, they are remaining sexually active much later into life...
“But while they are having a lot of sex, seniors didn’t seem to get the safe sex memo, or when it came through they ignored it because they did not think it applied to them.”
Emanuel's “proof” of this outrageous generalization derives from a misrepresention of statistics from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in this demonstrably false assertion:
”Combine retirement communities, longer life, unfamiliarity with condoms and Viagra — and what do you get? You get an S.T.D. epidemic among the Social Security generation that rivals what we imagine is happening in those Animal House fraternities.”
I'll let that nasty, little condom and Viagra reference slide, but the CDC statistics on STDs among elders bear no resemblance to Emanuel's “epidemic” characterization.
In this chart at the CDC, for example, between 2007 and 2011, the number of cases of chlamydia in men and women age 65 and older increased from 809 (2.1 per 100,000) to 1064 (2.6 per 100,000).
During the same period, the number of chlamydia cases for those age 20-24 increased from 401,173 (1,907.4 per 100,000) to 542,947 (2,515.3 per 100,000).
Come on now. In no way does the first set of numbers “rival” the second.
Emanuel tries to further his contention of STDs run amok among elders with a wildly illogical comparison of the kinds of health tests Medicare beneficiaries undergo.
”Free S.T.D. tests,” he notes, “were as popular as colonoscopies among the 47.6 million eligible Medicare Part B patients.”
And why not? They are both important health conditions and it is a good thing, not evidence of epidemic, that there were 2.2 million STD tests AND 2.2 million colonoscopy screenings.
In conclusion, Ezekial makes his stand: “These S.T.D. numbers,” he says, “demand that seniors take responsibility for their actions.”
Right - as if we're all irresponsible layabouts who don't know anything about sex and its consequences.
Ezekiel calls for an education campaign aimed at old people about safe sex and then shows off even more of his ignorance and ageism with these suggestions:
”Social Security could include some information on S.T.D.’s [sic] and how to use a condom when it sends out checks.
“Come to think of it, these data mean there is an untapped market: over 40 million Americans who are unfamiliar with latex protection. Maybe Durex and Trojan can mail free condoms to every Social Security recipient?”
Dear god. Can it be that he thinks elders have never heard of condoms? Did he really write this article without knowing paper Social Security checks disappeared a year ago in favor of direct deposit and debit cards.
The terrible thing about Dr. Emanuel's Op-ed is that while a campaign to give elders a refresher course in STDs is not an urgent need, it is certainly a good idea.
But it's hard to take seriously even a smart suggestion from a person as uninformed as this man, especially when he also harbors so many ageist stereotypes about elders - unforgivable in someone who is fast approaching age 60 himself.
[UPDATE: After I wrote this post, I discovered this story by Michael Miner at Chicago Reader. He does his own similar and excellent take-down of Dr. Emanuel's misuse of statistics.]
ANNOUNCEMENT: In keeping with letting myself off the hook for too many responsibilities while sick, I have not prepared stories for The Elder Storytelling Place this week. They will return next Monday 27 January.