Sex & the senior citizen: teaching about condoms to the Social Security crowd

Kate GeMeiner, in a pixie haircut and a sensible brown pantsuit, holds up what, from the back of the room, appears to be a see-through balloon. It isn’t.

“Never use Vaseline with a condom,” she says in her best announcer’s voice. “Never, only KY jelly.”

The audience sits in rapt silence.

“And before you use a condom, check it for the expiration date.”

In a corner, a couple of women titter.

Then, when she shows off a flavored condom, GeMeiner, 83, former hospice chaplain, PTA president, furniture rental saleswoman and great-grandmother of two, delivers what may be the unintentionally funniest line of her presentation.

“The flavored ones,” she deadpans, “are for oral sex.”

The women and the smattering of men in this Hallandale Beach senior center erupt in hoots and laughter. Some hold tight to their walkers, others to their canes. One adjusts his hearing aid.

Count on GeMeiner, aka The Condom Lady or Dr. Truth, to tell it like it is. Doesn’t matter that members of her audience are long retired, ailing from myriad chronic medical conditions and considered to be impervious to certain natural urges.

But in the age of Viagra, Grandma and Grandpa are getting it on — and GeMeiner wants to make sure they’re practicing safe sex. She has been preaching her version of the gospel to this unlikely audience for about two decades, taking her show, complete with foil-wrapped condoms, to senior centers, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, health fairs, anywhere, really, that will have her.

“The average senior was raised at a time when you didn’t talk about sex,” GeMeiner says “It’s hard to overcome their embarrassment, but the fact is that there’s no age for getting an STD,” or sexually transmitted disease.

One way she navigates her audience’s discomfort is by telling jokes and weaving a good yarn. Another tactic: “I tell them, ‘You may think this topic is not applicable to you, but you may know a neighbor or a friend who can use it.’”

At the end of each talk she urges seniors to take home free condoms. “When you write a letter or send a check to your grandchildren, send them a condom.”

GeMeiner, who lives with one of her four children in Davie, knows the message may seem odd in a place where Social Security and Medicare are preferred topics. But it’s precisely for this reason, and the occasional obtuseness of her peers, that she forges on.

“One time after a talk, a man came up to me and told me he didn’t see the point of using a condom because his girlfriend was too old to get pregnant,” she recounts, shaking her head. “I said, ‘Excuse me while I go hit my head against the wall.’”

After her presentation at the Austin Hepburn Center, several seniors amble over to the front of the room to take the free condoms. Later one woman stops her in the hall and takes her hand. “Thank you very much for talking about this,” she whispers in GeMeiner’s ear. “More people need to listen.”

Another woman tells her she is performing important work. “She made me aware that when you go out there looking for love that you need to protect yourself,” says Lucia Luna, a 70-year-old widow.

Women, Luna adds, are too trusting, even in their advanced age. “Sometimes the partner has been around more, with different women and he is not aware that he has a disease he can give you. And you don’t know about it because he will tell you, ‘Oh, I’ve never been around.’ ”

Victor de Souza, Hallandale Beach’s program coordinator for senior services, says GeMeiner plays an invaluable role in talking publicly about the need for prevention and protection at all ages. “It’s very important for our seniors because so many of them take it for granted that they are safe. They think they know all the rules for engagement, all the rules for having a boyfriend or having a girlfriend.”

GeMeiner grew up in Pennsylvania and raised her family on the Jersey Shore before moving to California. She became interested in sex education while providing spiritual support to gay men dying from AIDS through a church in West Hollywood. That work inspired her to begin an educational outreach aimed at her peers when her employer, a national hospital and out-patient surgery company, transferred her to Broward.

But when she tried to launch a support group for seniors infected with HIV in the mid 1990s, nobody came. So she became a volunteer with the Broward County Health Department, counseling seniors and their families about free health benefits. That stint eventually led her to launch her sex-ed talks.

“I wasn’t ready for retirement,” she jokes. “Retirement sucks. I always say I went on Social Security instead.”

In addition to her sex-ed presentations, she also volunteers twice a week at Memorial Pembroke Hospital and does bereavement work at Temple Adath Or in Davie. She’s enshrined in the Broward Senior Hall of Fame, which honors county residents for outstanding volunteerism.

Her work, she says, is never done. “People are living longer and staying sexually active longer too. And just wait for the baby boomers. We’re really going to need this more and more.”