At the Pinole Senior Center in Northern California, there are lots of gray-haired folks huddled around the computer these days. Contrary to expectation, they're not there to learn how to e-mail their more tech-savvy grandchildren. No, these grandmas and grandpas are looking for love on the internet.
Betty Pleich, a 75-year-old widow, is open to the possibilities of internet dating. She says she couldn't imagine her grandmother searching the web for a beau, but this generation is different.
"I think we want to get out and go," Pleich says. "We don't want to sit back in the rocking chair. We want to spread our wings still at this age."
The online dating class is taught by Connie Acton and her boyfriend of eight years, Tom Bowie. Connie is 74; Tom is 70. They met when he attended her basic computer class.
"I remember when I was a kid and I looked at my mother -- she remarried when she was 49 -- and I thought, 'What for? You're 49, you're almost dead.' Now I'm looking at her and [thinking] she was a kid almost at 49."
With their full, active and busy lives, today's older adults want a partner to share it with. That also means having a robust sex life well into their 70s, 80s, and even 90s.
It also means confronting a harsh reality of the modern world: sexually transmitted diseases.
Safe Sex After 60
"I see older people who think sexually transmitted diseases are for the young," says Dr. Hilda Hutcherson, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University Medical Center in New York. "We don't get gonorrhea, we don't get chlamydia, we don't get HIV," her patients tell her.
However, Dr. Hutcherson says that's a fallacy. Patients often are too shy to ask their doctors difficult sexual questions -- so doctors need to ask them directly, she says. "I say, 'How's your sex life?' and then wait for the answer. And that normalizes and makes it much easier for an older woman to say, 'Well, there are some issues that I want to talk to you about.'"
Author of "What Your Mother Never Told You About S-e-x" and a columnist who writes for Essence and Glamour magazines, Dr. Hutcherson is blunt about asking her patients if they're practicing safe sex. It could save their lives. Statistics show that although the highest number of new HIV cases is in people in their thirties and forties, there are now more patients being diagnosed in their fifties than in their twenties.
'Sex Is Life-Long'
So, once they're practicing safe sex, Dr. Hutcherson says it's time to make sure they're having enjoyable sex. "Sex is life-long," she says. "You should never give up on something that is so important."
That surprises many older people, who've been led to believe that their sex drive lessens or dies out later in life. It surprised Joan Price so much when she fell in love at age 57 that she was moved to write a book. It's titled -- tellingly -- "Better Than I Ever Expected: Straight Talk About Sex After 60."
The book has gone to a second printing, so high is the demand for information from people in her generation. It's also led to a blog, in which middle-age and older men and women write in for some straight talk about sex -- everything from when is too soon to become intimate with a new man after a spouse dies, to reclaiming sexuality after cancer.
Now 63, Joan is a newlywed. She met her husband Robert when he took her line dancing class. The sex? She's happy to report that it's never been better.
"I had expected, as a young person, that old people a) didn't have sex, or b) if they did, they didn't enjoy it, because it was something that young people did," she says. "And then, when I fell in love at age 57, I was amazed at how wonderful it was, not only being in love, but also our sex life."
If anyone out there is saying "ick" about older people having sex lives, Joan Price says, just wait. And Dr. Hutcherson admonishes people to never give up on love and sex. "It should never, never be something you just lock in a closet and say, 'Those days are over.'"