By Makebra M. Anderson, NNPA Washington Correspondent
While much of the public’s attention is focused on young people contracting almost half of all new HIV and AIDS cases, there is a growing HIV/AIDS problem developing among the elderly, a problem that will only grow worse as baby boomers reach retirement.
“I don’t think older people think of HIV at all except as something affecting young people and few places are trying to build up an information base and let them know that this affects everybody. We have to understand that everybody is liable to become infected,” said Bill Rydwels, a 73-year-old man that has been living with HIV for 20 years.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were 1,039,987 reported AIDS cases in 2003 of which, 315,509 (30 percent) were in people over 45.
In 1999, the CDC reports that there were 11,056 reported AIDS cases in people 45 and older. In 2001, an estimated 12,176 people over 45 were living with AIDS and in 2003, approximately 13,825.
People of color are still disproportionately affected.
Fifty-two percent of older Americans living with HIV/AIDS are either African-American or Hispanic, reports the CDC. Among men over 50 living with HIV and AIDS, 49 percent are of color. Among women, 70 percent are of color.
The continued increase in HIV among those over 50 can also be attributed to their living longer, thanks to advanced HIV therapy. According to Rydwels, who works with the Chicago Forum on HIV and Aging, the perception that people over 50 aren’t sexually active is one of the leading causes of high rates of HIV and AIDS among this group.
“People over 50 come from a generation where the discussion of sex was an under the table thing. You may have discussed it with your mate or you may have discussed it very lightly with a close friend. It’s something that professionals didn’t discuss and still aren’t comfortable discussing with older people,” he said. “Nobody wants to discuss the sexual habits of older people. It’s the concept that older people stop having sex and it’s just not a reality. We all need that approval that sex gives us—that we’re wanted and loved.”
According to a study by the University of Chicago, 60 percent of men and 37 percent of women 50 years old and above report engaging in sexual intercourse a few times per month.
Rita Strombeck, a physician with Healthcare Education Associates, a group that has recently developed a continuing medical education program for doctors and nurses to recognize HIV/AIDS as a problem among older people, agrees.
“It has to do with the fact that they [older people] don’t consider themselves at risk and they are. One of the problems with doctors and primary care providers is they don’t recognize it’s a problem with older adults, either,” she says.
According to Patricia Hawkins, associate executive director of the D.C.-based Whitman-Walker Clinic, the popularity of medications such as Viagra has also contributed to the surge of HIV and AIDS among this group.
“Viagra has contributed a lot to this because there is so much more sexual activity among seniors and yet they are not often using contraception because they aren’t worried about pregnancy,” she said. “I don’t think that our medical community has caught up to the impact of Viagra. Sometimes medical professionals think that older people aren’t that sexually active, but what’s really happening is people are much more sexually active now than they were 10 years ago – much more.”
Because of a general lack of awareness in older adults, they have been omitted from research, trials, prevention and intervention efforts. Nonetheless, because of their age, they may be more at risk than young people. For older women, the use of condoms becomes unimportant after menopause.
Not only are older people at risk, the symptoms of HIV are hard to detect because of aging. Sometimes it’s difficult for physicians to determine if a person has the flu or is infected with the virus. Many of the early symptoms such as night sweats, chronic fatigue, weight loss, dementia and swollen lymph nodes mimic the natural aging process.
The National Association on HIV Over Fifty (NAHOF) says that there are specific ways to target older people.
“Specific programs must be implemented for older adults who need to be informed about the transmission and prevention of HIV, more research is needed to study seniors’ sexual and drug-using behaviors to determine HIV disease progression and treatments and programs aimed at reaching health care and service providers should cover misdiagnoses,…treatments, ….support groups and more.”
There is also an education program in Kansas City called HIV Wisdom for Older Women that is dedicated to the prevention of HIV in older women and to life enrichment for those who are infected.
Hawkins, who runs the Whitman-Walker clinic, says a few programs here and there is not enough.
“HIV/AIDS hasn’t been part of their life experiences. Younger people have been learning about HIV ever since they’ve become sexually active. Gay men are different, but for the heterosexual population they are really stunned and often don’t have the same sort of peer support groups that the other communities have.” Rydwels agrees, but doesn’t want older people to get discouraged.
“Twenty years ago everyone was dying all around us, but because of government intervention and drugs I was able to so far beat it. I want people to realize there is a life after becoming infected. It doesn’t mean it is the end. It’s just you have to adjust your way of living,” he said. “If you take care of yourself, eat properly, take your medication and try to live as good a life as possible you can have longevity.”
Makebra M. Anderson is the Washington Correspondent for the NNPA News Service. This article originally appeared onBlackPressUSA.com as “HIV/AIDS will Boom with Baby Boomers” on May 16, 2005.