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Courtesy of My Generation. Article By Linda Wilson
The idea of buying condoms may have been exciting when you were in your teens; in your forties and fifties, it takes on a somewhat ludicrous slant. But if you’re into a new relationship, there’s no ignoring the fact that you still need protection.
Aucklander Lorna* was 44 when her periods stopped. They’d been irregular for a few months beforehand and that, coupled with a handful of hot flushes she’d experienced, convinced her that menopause had started.
But after several months she began to suspect that menopause wasn’t responsible for her lack of periods after all. “I was having all these familiar symptoms so I went out and bought a pregnancy test,” she recalls. “It was positive. I was absolutely bowled over. It just hadn’t occurred to me that I could get pregnant at that age.”
The news did not go down well with her partner, who had never had children by choice. “He was furious, to put it mildly. We’d been together for eight months and when I started having the irregular periods I had told him we could probably stop using condoms – which he hated – because I thought I was starting menopause and couldn’t get pregnant. Boy, was I wrong.”
Lorna’s partner could not cope with the idea of becoming a dad and the couple split up. With two teenage children from a previous relationship, she decided to keep the baby. “I adore my son and I can’t imagine life without him,” says Lorna, who is now in her early 50s. “But it has been really, really hard, bringing up a child on my own at my age. You can’t turn the clock back but there were times when I wished I had thought more about contraception.”
That’s a subject mum-of-three Suzanne* is having to consider for the first time in over a decade. Now 42, she divorced three years ago and has just started a new relationship.
“My ex-husband had a vasectomy after our youngest was born so I haven’t had to worry about contraception for about 10 years. My new partner and I have been using condoms but it’s not an ideal situation. The last time I used condoms I was a teenager and now using them seems slightly ridiculous when you’re both in your 40s and don’t have HIV or an STI. Plus I have concerns about how reliable they are.”
“The Pill seems the obvious choice to me because that’s what I used to use. However, my blood pressure has shot up in the last few years so I probably shouldn’t go on it. So it will have to be something else but I’m not sure what. This is all new territory for me and I’m a little bit embarrassed about going to talk to my GP about it, at my age.”
You should never feel shy about discussing contraception with your doctor, no matter what your age, says Dr Christine Roke, national medical advisor for Family Planning. “They’ve seen it all,” she says. “They know that people’s circumstances change so their contraceptive needs may change.”
Family Planning has recently produced a new resource specifically aimed at women over 40 who are starting a new sexual relationship and having to think about issues like contraception, often for the first time in many years. Called Upd@teMe, the booklet provides information on a variety of subjects from sexual etiquette to fertility.
While many forty-something women understand the need to protect themselves against sexually transmitted infections (STIs) when they start a new relationship, not everyone appreciates that they may also need contraception because they may still be able to get pregnant.
“Unfortunately not all women realise that they can still be fertile, even if they’re having irregular periods or other signs of the menopause,” says Dr Roke. “They may still be ovulating and therefore they can still get pregnant.
“We get women over 40 coming in to have their IUDs out and when we ask what type of contraception they are going to use next, often they will say they’re not planning on using anything. They don’t think they need contraception any more. It is a concern and you do hear from time to time about women in their 40s becoming pregnant unintentionally. For some of them it can be disastrous.”
Family Planning always recommends people of any age starting a new sexual relationship use condoms to protect against disease. Tests can show whether you or your partner have an infection and while results for some STIs (for example chlamydia) come back quickly, it can take around three months to learn the outcome of others, such as tests for syphilis or HIV. “During that time you should always use condoms,” says Dr Roke.
If you both have a clean bill of health and no longer want to use condoms there are quite a few contraceptive choices available. “It could be quite a long time since you’ve needed to think about contraception and there are options now that possibly weren’t there the last time you were deciding what to use,” says Dr Roke.
“The best thing to do is to go and see your doctor or come to us at Family Planning to discuss your particular situation. There are lots of things that need to be taken into consideration, such as your health. You need to find the contraception that is going to work best for you and your partner.”
* Names have been changed