When older people start dating, they run into many of the same heart-pounding issues as the young, trying to decide when it's time to talk - and when to make love.

That's the word from older singles such as Emily Gordon, 73, a Carrboro, N.C., resident who's on the dating scene and has started a community conversation about how older people could and should get together.

The conversation is vital: Whether younger people want to hear it or not, at least 20 percent of older adults are sexually active. But these older sex partners also can be at risk in a health-care world that tends to overlook their amorous activities.

On the emotional side, Gordon says, older people she's encountered want most a friend to talk to, then someone to date, and, yes, a partner for something "beyond dating."

"I believe sex is important in a relationship," Chapel Hill, N.C., resident Wally Friedman, 75, told prospective older daters at a recent public discussion. "But you two will have more verbal intercourse than sexual."

For older people, particularly those who have lost partners, negotiating the dating world can present an unsettling conflict between long-ago experiences and present-day reality. Gordon, Friedman and Chapel Hill resident Rita Berman talked frankly with audience members recently about dating and hooking up.

"Is it unreasonable to ask a man who seeks intimacy to have an AIDS test?" asked one of the audience members.

Sure, that's fine, people said at the discussion at Orange County, N.C.'s Seymour Center.

"If you are thinking about initiating a relationship, there's a wonderful word called 'condom,'" Gordon said, adding that a sexually transmitted disease can be especially troublesome for an older person who already has health problems.

Dr. Racquel Daley-Placide, a geriatrician and clinical assistant professor at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Medicine's Division of Geriatrics, said many older people are poorly informed about how to protect themselves against sexually transmitted diseases.

"For them, growing up, the issue was pregnancy," Daley-Placide said. "For younger people growing up now, the issues are pregnancy and a whole range of sexually transmitted diseases.

"Unfortunately, we don't really target older people in our educational efforts regarding safe sex."

When Daley-Placide recently taught medical students a class on sexuality in older people, she said, she began by asking whether the students' parents and grandparents were having sex.

"Everybody got this really nauseated look on their faces," she said. "They need to understand that that is a type of prejudice."

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