December 31, 2001
I am just going to start with the blunt truth -- seniors, older adults, grandmothers, grandfathers, great aunts, great uncles, etc., have sex. I will say it again but in a different way ... people who are over fifty have sex!
Consequently, people over fifty get HIV. I have come to the realization that society doesn't think that this age group is having sex or could possibly be at risk for HIV. But the truth is that they are. I can't understand why people think that your sexual desires magically stop at 49, or that there is no way that grandma could get HIV. (I am not implying that everyone over 50 is a grandma!)
The thing is that I do remember worrying about my grandmother after my granddaddy died in 1989. I knew that my grandfather had a number of blood transfusions due to a long-term illness and wondered if he could have been infected with HIV. Interestingly, I didn't even really connect the possibility of infection until after I had read And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts. (This was my first recognition that the Ronald Reagan era did "jack crap" about encouraging the testing of the national blood supply or anything else to do with HIV!) I worried about her again when she started dating. I was hoping she heard me when I talked about HIV. I hoped that she recognized that everyone was at risk. I eventually learned that she heard me because she told me that she had gone to get tested because "granddaddy had blood transfusions." I was relieved and proud that I had such a progressive/intelligent grandmother.
In spring 2000, I attended the National Social Work and AIDS Conference in San Diego and was surprised to learn that between 11 and 15% of U.S. AIDS cases occur in people over age 50. The saddest part of all this information was that most older persons are not routinely tested, so they are much more likely to be diagnosed with HIV at a later stage of infection. This population often becomes sick and dies sooner. The gerontologist or primary care physician may never think to suggest an HIV test (again, not taking a sexual and drug using history because they do not recognize the risk of this population), thus leaving the person open for misdiagnosis and missed opportunities for early care. (A recent survey of doctors in Texas showed that the vast majority rarely or never asked patients over 50 questions about HIV/AIDS or discussed risk factor reduction.)
I mention misdiagnosis because HIV symptoms are often similar to those natural aging symptoms. Symptoms like fatigue (misdiagnosed as depression), tuberculosis, shingles, weight loss (commonly misdiagnosed as depression), dementia (which is commonly misdiagnosed as Alzheimer's disease), skin rashes, swollen lymph nodes and pneumonia (PCP can look like bacterial pneumonia, bronchitis and even congestive heart failure when there is undiagnosed HIV) are often common to aging but could actually be signs of HIV.
The CDC recently reported that a higher proportion of HIV-infected people over 50 die within one month after their AIDS diagnosis as compared to folks under the age of 50. Dr. Robert Kalayjian of Metro Health Medical Center in Cleveland also concluded that the older a person is when initially infected, the more rapid disease progression will be. He stated, "There is no concrete evidence as to why this happens. In the aging immune system, T-cells may not be replaced as rapidly or may be nonfunctional. We know that age does some of the same things the virus does to the immune system."
When we look at the older person's risk for HIV, a couple of unique factors should be considered. They include: inconsistent use of condoms due to generational mindsets and unfamiliarity with HIV/STD prevention methods, possible prescription and other substance use, the thought that condom use for birth control after menopause is unimportant, and that the developmental process of normal aging brings a decrease in vaginal lubrication as well as a thinning of the vaginal walls.
Because of our advances in treatment, the "older person" living with HIV includes a generation of people who were originally diagnosed in their 30s and 40s. Due to triple-combination drug therapy and other treatment advances, we can expect the number of cases to increase in this population. This "sub-community" will also bring their own unique set of needs as they continue to live longer lives with the advancement in HIV treatment.
So, what can you do to advocate for older adults and HIV?
Chicago Association on HIV Over Fifty
Contact: William W. Rydwels
Senior HIV Intervention Project (SHIP) in three Florida counties
Palm Beach: 561-586-4843
The American Association of Retired Persons
Social Outreach & Support
The National Institute on Aging