GMHC Revives Buddy Program to Comfort and Support Long-Term HIV/AIDS Survivors

GMHC client with a volunteer from the original Buddy Program, circa 1990.
GMHC client with a volunteer from the original Buddy Program, circa 1990.

We all need somebody to lean on. When you're a long-term HIV/AIDS survivor, the need for companionship and care can be crucial to your health. To meet the needs of "HIV and AIDS veterans," Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) has re-launched its historic Buddy Program to serve those who have been living with HIV/AIDS for 10 years or more.

The announcement was made on National HIV/AIDS Long-Term Survivors Awareness Day, which is held on June 5, the anniversary of the day that the U.S. CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) published the first report on five gay men who were diagnosed with Pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP) in the early years of the AIDS epidemic.

The program was originally created in 1982 to help those who were dying from AIDS who were isolated, often without assistance from family. GMHC Buddies performed helpful tasks such as escorting people living with HIV to the hospital, to medical appointments or to the grocery store, and assisting with household needs when clients became too weak. They also gave emotional support. The program ceased in 2005 due to declining interest and the loss of Ryan White funding from the U.S. Congress.

The population of people living with HIV who are over 50 and have lived with the virus for more than 10 years is swiftly growing. With the advent of antiretroviral therapy, people are living with HIV longer than ever, and many are facing illnesses that are common with aging, including depression, high cholesterol and triglycerides, and dementia. In the press release announcing the revived program, GMHC listed isolation, the stresses of living with chronic illness, substance use and suicide as potential risks for those aging with HIV, as well as stigma from the LGBT community and symptoms akin to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The Buddy Program will be advised by a new committee overseen by Jeff Rindler. "Having Jeff spearhead this committee and ongoing work is wonderful because he has worked with many of these resilient men and women over his 20-year history at GMHC," said Kelsey Louie, GMHC's chief executive officer.

"Long-term survivors have lived through the worst of the AIDS epidemic, and now in many ways feel forgotten," explained Rindle. "We are not only committed to making sure they are not forgotten, but also that they are honored and have access to services that meet their needs today."

Sean McKenna is a long-term survivor and a member of the new advisory committee.

"AIDS isn't over until there's a cure," McKenna said. "And until there is a cure every single one of us that becomes infected will, eventually like me, become a long-term survivor with health issues."

McKenna, who is passionate in his belief that more information about growing older with HIV should be made available to long-term survivors, says he is thrilled that GMHC is dedicating time and effort to this community.

"I don't think as a long-term survivor that we have been thought of much since 1996 and the cocktail. We have unique needs, and until those needs are addressed by our ASOs, I will be vocal," he said.

McKenna was happy to see movement in the HIV/AIDS community after the release of movies like How to Survive a Plague and We Were Here, though he felt that conversations about long-term survivors were still insufficient.

"We stayed quietly alone on a shelf," he said. "Spencer Cox made me realize that it is time to pick us back up. We have a great deal to learn about PTSD, depression, isolation, aging and long term side effects because we're still here. Yeah, we're blessed with life, but not with a life of quality."

In addition to the Buddy Program, GMHC has also launched a new page on its website dedicated to services for long-term survivors.

Mathew Rodriguez is the community editor for and You can follow him on Twitter at @mathewrodriguez, like his Facebook page or visit him on his personal website.