Sexual Healing Toronto’s Wellesley Central Residences
Bill Handley, 63, is having a senior’s moment. At least, he thinks so. It’s either his age or his medication, but either way he can’t remember what he discussed with his last client. This is not unusual for Bill. He doesn’t expect much out of his short term memory, and relies heavily on dozens of little notes he writes to himself, reminding him to “phone Nikki; phone Evelyn; talk to Ali about parking her car.” Though he knows his forgetfulness is a normal part of aging, he strongly suspects his “cocktail,” what he calls the medley of pills he takes each day, has something to do with it.
Like most other people living with HIV, Bill has to take an array of drugs each day to get his body to function normally. But because his body is aging, Bill says it’s hard for him to tell what “normal” is. Consequently, he sees his doctor once every month for tests, and, most importantly, to make sure the cocktail is still doing its job.
Growing up in Cape Breton, Bill received very little in terms of sexual education. He and his 11 siblings never discussed sex with their parents, which he says was not unusual for kids growing up in the fifties. School wasn’t much better.
“What I did hear, I heard from my friends,” he laughs. “I went to a Catholic school with nuns and that was a long time ago, you know.”
For the most part, sexual education programs in Canadian schools have adapted to involve information about STDs because of the Canadian Guidelines for Sexual Education, which was first published in 1994. But as Canada’s baby boomers become the next generation of seniors, many remain in the dark. And thanks to drugs like Viagra and Cialis, they’re staying sexually active longer.
The proof lies in an American study on the sexual attitudes of senior citizens. The study, which was performed by the National Commission on Aging, showed that 61 percent of men and 37 percent of women over 60 considered themselves to be sexually active. This prolonged sex life in combination with a lack of sexual precautions (like not getting tested regularly and not using a condom) means that some Canadians are contracting HIV later in life.
It’s not a new trend. In fact, older citizens have accounted for around 10 percent of Canada’s newly positive test results since the early 90s. The important change lies in the mode of transmission. Most commonly, the virus was transmitted to seniors through blood transfusions, but a study performed by the Public Health Agency of Canada in 2001 showed that most of the newly diagnosed cases were a result of sexual contact. And although seniors account for a substantial minority of newly diagnosed cases of HIV in Canada, education campaigns still focus mostly on youth and the gay community.
One Toronto facility that advertises an open forum about the subject is Wellesley Central Residences. The modern 12-story building features floor to ceiling windows on every level and brings a sense of liveliness to Toronto’s St. James Town neighbourhood.
The home takes pride in the fact that it integrates senior citizens and people living with HIV/AIDS under one roof. Tony DiPede, who is chair of the board of directors for Wellesley Central Residences Inc., says it creates “a unique community of sharing and support.”
WCRI opened its doors just over a year ago and although the community has been successful thus far, it is still the only one of its kind in Ontario.
“Let’s face it – we still think AIDS is for the gay community, AIDS is for drug users. It’s about breaking down that barrier,” says Ian Mahaffy, 46, who has been an HIV/AIDS educator for the past 16 years. The silence surrounding the topic may stem from discomfort. “We don’t want to think about seniors having sex, let alone discuss it with them,” he says.
But Mahaffy proves he isn’t afraid to discuss it. Sitting in a group with his 76 year old mother and her six widowed friends, he laughs and jokes easily with the women as they all sip on cocktails, this time of the alcoholic variety.
The women frequent the “singles dances” held by their retirement community and are giggling about the attention they have recently gained from a few gentlemen suitors. But as soon as Ian brings up the topic of sex and protection from STDs, the giggling stops.
“Well, it’s not like we’re going to get pregnant,” one of the ladies pipes up. “I’m pretty sure they’re not gay,” says another.
In reality, heterosexual activity was responsible for 28 percent of the new cases of HIV in 2001. Since their talk Ian has convinced his mother to make every new sexual partner she has get tested. He stresses that sexually active seniors should speak openly and often about sex, use protection and get tested.
“Look at me, I’ve been positive for 18 years, going on 19,” he says. “You would never know it. If I hadn’t gotten tested, I would never know it.”
Many nursing homes and retirement communities have the unique opportunity to provide an open forum on issues of sexuality, but don’t.
The Beach Arms retirement community in Toronto provides their residents with speakers on educational topics from “safety to planning funerals, from diabetes to heart failure.” When asked why Beach Arms doesn’t include information on sex,
Susan Turner, the communities administrator says, “We’ve never had an issue with it. No one’s ever approached us about it.”
But Bill, who is now a case worker for the Toronto People with AIDS foundation, believes that communication is key. He urges senior citizens to “take a pocket full of condoms” with them, and to always “err on the side of caution.”
These days, Bill’s main concern is remembering to enjoy life. “My philosophy is, I’m not going to let it beat me,” he says, without any hesitation. “I’m not going to ruin the time I have left.”