September 19, 2012
HIV is no longer the death sentence it used to be. In fact, with proper treatment and adherence, more and more HIV-positive individuals are living long and healthy lives. Still, aging well can be a challenge, especially when dealing with HIV. So we asked HIV survivors and thrivers themselves what their advice is for living a healthy, happy life with HIV well into your 50s and beyond.
Jane Fowler, 77, North Kansas City, Mo.; Diagnosed in 1991
Emotional support has been critical to my "healthy" survival with HIV since my infection at the beginning of 1986. Said support, which contributes to happiness, comes from friends who continue to be "there" if I need them and offer distractions that keep me from obsessing about the virus. There's also the ongoing support of my son, Stephen (my only child) and his family, who live in Toronto. My favorite activity is a visit there with my grandson, 8-going-on-9-year-old Milo, and granddaughter Matilda, who is six. My suggestion for others aging with HIV is: Cultivate a network of persons on whom you can rely.
Paul Yabor, 50, Philadelphia, Pa.; Diagnosed in 1990
Be true to thyself and to thy own self be true. Learn to listen to your body, your mind and your heart. At the end of the day, it is you who must live with the decision you make. The quality of life you live has as much to do with how you deal with stress, pursue happiness and avoid negativity as it does with your medication regimen and adherence.
Don't be strictly ruled by lab numbers and pill regimens. Work closely with a doctor who knows you best and can offer you treatment options that work best in the context of your life. Most of all, appreciate that you are alive. So many have fallen in the battle with this disease, but as long as we are alive there is always hope for a day when HIV/AIDS will come to an end.
Millicent Foster, 51, Baton Rouge, La.; Diagnosed in 2002
As time goes by, I find that I am more active today than I was 20 years ago. I have changed my diet to include more fruits and vegetables; I don't eat any type of pork and eat very little seafood. I walk on a daily basis and I just joined a gym to start working out and exercising.
When I was diagnosed, the doctors gave me 6 months to live. Well here I am 10 years later, in better health than I was back then. I have a strong belief in God and he has brought me this far to tell my story to help others. To all of you who are 50 and aging, I say change your diet, start exercising more, get plenty of rest and live your life to the fullest, because HIV is no longer a death sentence. Trust in God to make you a better person and seek him for all your needs. I may have HIV, but HIV doesn't have me. It is only a small part of my life and I refuse to give up or give in to it.
Nelson Vergel, 51, Houston, Texas; Diagnosed in 1986
As a man living with HIV for 28 years, besides the obvious (taking your meds on time, not using street drugs, etc), the two main suggestions I have are to stay ahead of the game with proper information and to find passion in life. The former means staying educated about health by reading and going to lectures, having a strong self-advocacy with your medical care system and becoming a partner with your physician. We are all getting older and some of us may be lucky enough to remain independent and strong as we successfully age with HIV. Passion is the best medicine for healthy aging. Some of us find it early in life and some others still struggle to find it even later in life. But whatever it is that makes you tick, embrace it and feed it. It will motivate you to go through life even when the going gets tough.
Reggie Smith, 55, Atlanta, Ga.; Diagnosed in 1988
It is a delicate balance to negotiate the successful completion of my "bucket list" while constantly keeping something to look forward to. My expectation of living a long life has grown with time. The most important things in my experience have been maintaining gratitude for life, not getting bored, and avoiding despair. Thank God for my grandchildren!
Dab Garner, 50, Wilton Manors, Fla.; Diagnosed in 1982
The first thing I would advise is to educate yourself about HIV, the medications and Ryan White funding and services. The more you understand each of these items, the better you will be able to live with HIV. Whether you learn to be an advocate for your own health care or to help our HIV/AIDS community on a city, state or national level, education is key to survival.
Next, you need to know it is imperative to continue practicing safer sex, even if your sexual partners are also HIV positive. Not only can you potentially catch other strains of HIV, you do not want to complicate your life with other STDs. It is also very important to find a health care provider who you can work with toward health goals. It is essential to be totally honest with your physician about your body so they know when and how to treat issues as they arise as well as recommend preventive strategies.
Finally, you should practice better overall health goals that anyone should, regardless of HIV status, such as regular exercise, good nutrition, stress reduction, getting enough rest, taking your medications as prescribed and limiting or eliminating alcohol, tobacco and other harmful substances.
Mark S. King, 51, Atlanta, Ga.; Diagnosed in 1985
I'm getting older. Thank God. Oh, wait. I'm getting older! That sucks. And those are my thoughts on aging with HIV. I know I live in a gay culture that fetishizes youth and looks and body image, and that's stressful enough -- that is, until I find a place of gratitude that reminds me that every single day is a gift that was denied to many of my close friends. I might still bemoan my wrinkles and my sags, but life still has lessons to teach me, perhaps about aging gracefully and nurturing a spiritual consciousness, and I'm quite willing to learn. But if life doesn't mind too much, I also have a new arm workout I'm dying to try.
Mark S. King is a longtime, outspoken HIV advocate and blogger for TheBody.com. Watch his videos and read his blog, My Fabulous Disease.
David Fawcett, 58, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Diagnosed in 1988
Take care of the rest of your body! We are human guinea pigs having taken these powerful medications year after year. I see many people around me (who successfully maneuvered life with HIV) now getting sick with cardiac, liver or kidney complications. For the first time since the PIs (protease inhibitors) came out, people I know are increasingly concerned about their future. All we can do is live in as healthy a way as possible: good diet, minimal alcohol, active exercise and balanced emotions.
Ask David your questions at the Substance Use and HIV and Mental Health and HIV forums. You can also read his blog, Riding the Tiger: Life Lessons From an HIV-Positive Therapist.
Helen Turner Goldenberg, 65, Dallas, Texas; Diagnosed in 1984
Be absolutely positively positive and proactive in the management of your health. As a 28-year HIV survivor, HIV advocate/activist, peer educator, certified public speaker, member of the Ryan White planning council in Dallas and evangelist (my faith in God gave me hope), I believe Jesus Christ can make the difference in your lives too. I have come a very long way with struggles of chronic pain, fear, feelings of inadequacy, stigma, a 14-day hostage situation, depression, agoraphobia, macular degeneration, osteoporosis, neuropathy, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, emphysema, other lung issues, obesity and much more.
I therefore strongly advise that you educate yourselves and make sure you have appropriate support. Apply sound health principles when it comes to diet, exercise, navigating the health care system and following a proper medication regimen because there may be consequences tomorrow for the health decisions you make today. Remember, you are greater than AIDS!