Few Americans think of white hair or laugh lines when they think about people living with HIV or AIDS. But researchers project that by 2015 more than half of all people living with HIV in the U.S. will be over 50.
Thanks to advances in medical treatment, people with HIV/AIDS are living longer; at the same time, some older adults are engaging in high-risk behaviors that result in new infections. Many don't know how to protect themselves from HIV -- or even that they can be at risk -- in part because few health education materials have prioritized their unique experiences and concerns.
Similarly, few training programs for health care providers address the aging of the AIDS epidemic. Surrounded by sanitized, asexual depictions of older people in our popular culture, many providers don't think to conduct thorough sexual and substance use risk assessments when collecting medical histories from patients over 50. As a result, some of the possible indicators of HIV infection may be written off as simply a part of "getting older."
This oversight can have serious implications for patients: delays in testing, diagnosis, and care can result in significantly worse health outcomes, for both HIV-positive individuals and for their sexual and drug using partners. And as older people with AIDS become less able to live independently over time, few assisted living and nursing facilities are equipped to adequately address their needs.
In 2006, inspired by ACRIA's groundbreaking ROAH study of a diverse cross-section of 1,000 people over 50 living with HIV in New York City, visual journalist Katja Heinemann created a series of portraits and oral histories in which older Americans from around the country shared their experiences of aging with the virus. This work has evolved into The Graying of AIDS, a Web-based multi-platform documentary project and educational campaign designed to increase sensitivity and awareness about the issues confronting people over 50 at risk for, or living with, HIV and AIDS. See more of this creative collaboration between visual journalist Katja Heinemann and health educator Naomi Schegloff at www.grayingofaids.org.