Jesse Peel credits the pool in the backyard of his Atlanta home for his continued good health. But not because he's swimming laps.
"My pool parties are incredible," said the 76-year-old retiree. On most Sunday afternoons each summer, Jesse welcomes at least 50 gay friends to his lushly landscaped pool, where spirits are high and clothing is optional. But please don't get the wrong idea.
"This is not a sex party," Jesse explained about the gatherings, where he is decades older than most of his guests. "I'm just fortunate that I have built a social network of guys who enjoy the company of an old fart like me."
On a typical balmy Sunday, Jesse can be found holding court under an umbrella by the pool, greeting guests while working on The New York Times' crossword puzzle. "It's a tonic for me," he said. "I came out late in life, so my gay friends have always been younger. And people don't think about the benefits of cross-generational friendships. Having vital people in my life means I have someone to call if I need help."
Asking for support comes after a lifetime of supporting others. A psychiatrist by profession, Jesse either founded or had a hand in launching nearly every HIV agency in Atlanta, dating back to serving on the board of AID Atlanta in 1984. Much of his work was done after his own HIV diagnosis in 1987, at age 47.
Although his blood work has remained stable, Jesse has dealt with health concerns as he has aged, such as bowel problems and compromised kidneys due to side effects from long-term medication use.
"It sucks," he said, summing up these concerns -- but he doesn't blame them on his virus. To Jesse, HIV is "just one of the pills I take. It's not the focus. I also have medications for cholesterol, my heart, and my prostate."
In fact, Jesse believes the health care he receives for HIV has contributed to his longevity in other ways. "I see my doctor every three or four months for regular labs," he said, "and that enables him to monitor my entire system."
Jesse has always been trim, but since having heart surgery five years ago, keeping weight on has been his biggest challenge -- and aging hasn't helped. "Getting the proper nutrition and eating regularly is harder," he said, "especially since I live alone and have to prepare meals for one."
While there has been curiosity and gossip about his friendships with younger men, Jesse is candid about his experiences with sex at 76. "I don't remember how long it's been," he admitted. He keeps a supply of Viagra on hand should the need arise, and he enjoys reading internet porn. "When I read on the computer," he added with his usual good humor, "at least it lets me increase the size of the text so I can see it!"
Despite having been a key figure among HIV organizations for decades ("I knew I had to stay active to survive," he said), his time and philanthropy are now focused elsewhere. "I had given all I had to the AIDS community," he recalled.
Jesse has recently become involved with Lost-n-Found, a new Atlanta agency that assists homeless LGBT youth.
"You can't wait for life to come to you. Take risks," Jesse advised. "Be involved with younger people. Some folks might not be interested, but that's okay." Those relationships can include family. "If you have nieces and nephews, get involved in their lives. We are the keepers of a lot of old family secrets," he added. "Scandalize them!"
Beyond his volunteer work, Jesse keeps busy by seeing local theater and making dinner dates with any one of his large cadre of friends. The dinners in particular help him eat regularly while providing important social support.
When asked what he imagines his life will be like in another 10 years, he didn't shy away from the question. "I hope I'm mobile," he answered. "You never know. I hope I'm still living alone, which I like."
"When I retired in 1992," he continued, "my goal was to be here for the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Then the new HIV drug cocktail happened, and my goals just kept spreading further out in front of me. I'm hoping to reach 80."
But Jesse has more immediate plans. "Did you know Bette Midler will be on Broadway in 2017?" he asked. "You know I've got to see that!"