Health & Fitness
HIV/AIDS Spikes Among Older Americans
Warren was a superstar teacher who loved his work when he checked into the hospital with pneumonia at the end of 2000.
“I was a popular teacher. Everybody wanted their child in my classroom,” he says.
It took four tests—two negative, one inconclusive, and one positive—for his doctors to confirm that Warren had joined the ranks of a growing number of older Americans diagnosed with HIV/AIDS.
Many, even in the medical community, have been surprised to see such a sharp increase among the older age groups. “It’s due to lack of education,” says Jane Fowler, 72, who founded HIV Wisdom for Older Women—a program dedicated to helping older women prevent infections—in 2002.
“There are people who are coming out of long relationships, and I’m thinking of women specifically, who don’t know what’s out there today.”
The latest information from the Centers for Disease Control indicates that 15 percent of new HIV/AIDS diagnoses occurred in people ages 50 and older in 2005. People over 50 living with HIV/AIDS grew from 17 percent in 2001 to 24 percent in 2005.
According to New York City’s Department of the Aging, that increase is due in part because senior citizens are less likely to use protection and are at a greater risk because of weakened immune systems. In addition, seniors who are newly single or widowed after long monogamous relationships may not know that the leading mode of transmission in their age range is through heterosexual relations.
“Older people need to be brought into the loop,” says Fowler, who was diagnosed with HIV at age 55. She sees a lot of denial. “They think it’s a disease of ‘them,’ not ‘us,’ that age gives them some sort of immunity, which of course is not true.”
For Warren, an NEA member since 1977 who asked that we not use his full name, he just happened to trust the wrong person. “My partner was [HIV] positive and didn’t know or didn’t tell,” says the 49-year-old resident of suburban Atlanta.
Shortly after his partner died in June 2001, Warren was urged to retire early. “It was an awful thing,” he says. “And then I was thinking, what was I going to do with the rest of my life? I loved the classroom. That was my heart.”
Warren had taught fourth and fifth grades, middle school language arts, and high school government and history between 1979 and 2001. During that time, he served as a student council faculty representative and helped with the yearbook and newspaper. “I just loved teaching. I was able to get through to the kids,” he says. “It was a new day every day, and you never knew what was going to happen.”
Warren had also volunteered for years with AID Atlanta, serving as a buddy for people who are HIV positive. Now he’s concerned about seniors getting the message that they must practice safe sex.
He’s saddened but not shocked that older people are getting infected at an alarming rate. “They don’t think they have to use protection, but they do. Plus, they don’t realize that a lot of people are dishonest.”
He stresses that even though he looks healthy and has lived with HIV for eight years, his treatment takes a big toll. “The medication keeps me alive, but it’s also very, very hard to take,” says Warren, who now has full-blown AIDS. “There are a lot of bad side effects—like diarrhea, nausea, throwing up—it’s a trade-off. Sometimes you even question whether living this way on this medication is worth it.”
He’s also had two hip replacements and two knee replacements as a result of the medication’s side effects. And besides the financial burden, there’s the stress the disease adds to the common difficulties of growing older, such as dealing with elderly parents. “Emotionally, it’s a whirlwind,” he says.
Still, Warren was fortunate to be diagnosed early. Many seniors aren’t diagnosed properly because symptoms of HIV/AIDS resemble those of old age, according to New York City’s Department of the Aging. Plus, doctors often overlook the possibility because of the misconception that seniors aren’t sexually active.
Warren hopes his story will help people to wake up and realize that HIV/AIDS can happen to anyone.
“I’ve learned the hard way, and I know there are other people like me out there,” he says. “It’s a fact of life.”
WHY IS 50+ SUCH A FAST GROWING SEGMENT OF PEOPLE LIVING WITH HIV?
- Seniors are less likely to use protection because they aren’t worried about pregnancy.
- HIV/AIDS treatments are helping those infected live longer.
- Exposure to HIV creates a greater risk in seniors than younger people because of weakened immune systems.
- Older adults are less likely to be screened for sexually transmitted diseases because of ageist attitudes.
- Seniors with HIV/AIDS are often misdiagnosed because many of the symptoms resemble those of aging.
Source: New York City's Department of the Aging