Smell the Coffee!
Family, friends, jobs, and drugs were a huge part of my life -- and then came my HIV diagnosis in 1990 at the age of 51. I had developed a serious case of diarrhea that had gone on for two and a half months. I visited four different hospitals, but no one could tell me what was wrong. They gave me Kaopectate and Imodium A-D, but nothing worked. In order to endure the train ride to work, I had to pin hand towels around my butt like Pampers. At one point, I decided that, if I didn't eat, the diarrhea would stop. That didn't work -- it just kept coming and I lost 40 pounds. I looked and felt like I was going to die. My family was even making preparations for my final day. It took the leadership of my oldest daughter to say, "Mom, why don't you and I both get tested for HIV?"
I had heard whispers that diarrhea could be a symptom of The Monster (that's what HIV was called then), and I knew that I had put myself at risk by sharing needles. So I wasn't surprised at my HIV diagnosis -- but I still cried like a baby. Why was it that not one of those doctors had asked me if I would be willing to take an HIV test? How easily symptoms that are common to both HIV and aging -- fatigue, weight loss, digestive problems, and memory loss -- are overlooked. How many people over 50 have fallen through the cracks because of an inaccurate diagnosis and have then had to face advanced disease, opportunistic infections, and death? The medical profession needs to take a fresh look at this population. Yes! Some older people are using recreational drugs, by injection and in other ways. Yes! Many older people are having unprotected sex. Wake up and smell the coffee!
I know that HIV is something that I will have to live with from now on, but as I grow older, I'm also experiencing other health issues. Four months ago, my doctor told me I had high blood pressure. Even though it runs in my family (my mom had it for as long as I can remember), it was a bit overwhelming to try to deal with this new diagnosis. The constant dizziness and throbbing in my head is a lot for me to get used to, and sometimes these symptoms occur even though I have taken my high blood pressure medication.
Another health issue is severe arthritis. Arthur, my pet name for my condition -- sometimes I need to put a little humor into all of this for my own survival -- was already attacking the larger joints in my body (knees, hip, and elbows) and has now decided to branch out to many of the smaller joints (fingers and toes).
The good thing is that I've always been blessed to have the support of my family and dearest friends. And meeting people in this field of HIV/AIDS has broadened my support network tremendously. In 1996, the parole board mandated me to participate in a program at the Osborne Association, an agency that operates a broad range of services for people involved in the criminal justice system. Little did I know that this part of my journey through life would allow me to meet and interact with so many incredibly wonderful people.
One of my biggest concerns early on in my diagnosis was what was going to happen to my love life. Was the condom going to break or slip? Would I infect someone else? I have been able to work through that, and now I'm just waiting for the right partner. I hope the wait won't be too long.
Although I have spoken at different HIV groups, I would absolutely welcome participating in any non-HIV-related group that targets older folks.
Meanwhile life goes on. My HIV viral load is undetectable, and my body was able to clear the hepatitis C virus on its own, without treatment. I wake up every morning and put my feet on the floor even if I feel a little dizzy and even if my feet are swollen and in pain. I can still see, walk, talk, and think. So with all this being said, I enthusiastically look forward to another milestone in my life (turning 65 this September) and many more wonderful years in my life's journey.
Joan Warner, 64, a member of ACRIA's Community Advisory Board, is a training instructor with the Osborne Association's Peer Education Empowerment Training Program.
This article was provided by AIDS Community Research Initiative of America. It is a part of the publication ACRIA Update. Visit ACRIA's website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.