I hope to see anyone living in Chicago in this lecture!
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|When AIDS service providers talk about condom campaigns and safer sex, most people assume they’re not talking to Chicago seniors. But if experts have it right, they need to start.HIV infection rates among Illinois seniors are climbing, advocates say. But unlike other at-risk groups, seniors present unique challenges in battling the disease, not the least of which is a stigma around sex and older adults that often silences that trend in both the media and in doctors’ offices.
“Folks often times overlook the fact that older adults are still having sex,” said Hope Barrett, senior director of public programs at the Center on Halsted. “Sexuality is a lifetime thing. You don’t stop being sexual at 30.”
According to 2009 Illinois Department of Public Health records, more than 10,000 people over age 50 are living with HIV/AIDS in Illinois. That’s not just because the generation hit hardest by AIDS is aging; 15% of that figure is new infections, reported between just 2005-2009.
That trend increasingly concerns Chicago AIDS service providers and is the subject a new film produced by Center on Halsted, Aging POZitively. The documentary, which premiers May 23 at Center on Halsted, follows three people who contracted HIV after age 50.
“It was incredibly challenging to find folks who would come forward to be a part of the film,” said Barrett, noting that most seniors shied away from sharing their HIV statuses. The film also explores the rising rate of infections among older adults as well as the challenges facing HIV-positive seniors.
Those challenges are myriad, said Dr. Magda Houlberg, a geriatrician who specializes in HIV care at Howard Brown Health Center. Many seniors don’t find out they are positive until much later than young people because HIV symptoms can easily be mistaken for signs of aging, like fatigue, depression, and a host of age-related illnesses. Further, other medications can complicate anti-HIV regimens. Those issues also make older adults undesirable to HIV researchers because they can cloud study results.
“Most research in terms of drug treatment for HIV is for people under 50,” Dr. Houlberg said. “So most information we have is just from what we’re seeing [ among patients ] .”
Houlberg also believes that HIV rates among older adults might be higher than statistics suggest because few physicians encourage them to get HIV tests.
“The medical community is so uncomfortable with sexuality in general, but with older adults they’re especially uncomfortable,” Houlberg said. “Some older adults do get offended when you broach the subject. It’s almost like you’re accusing someone of having risk behavior.”
The U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ( CDC ) recommends that physicians talk about HIV with patients under age 65, but the advent of performance-enhancing drugs like Viagra and the fact that people are living longer has meant that more people are having sex later in life.
Some of those people were already married or partnered adults when the AIDS epidemic broke out and may have aged without seeing themselves as susceptible to the disease. Many who are widows or recent divorcees are negotiating safer-sex for the first time, said Hope Barrett.
However, people who lived through the onset of AIDS may also be at heightened risk. Modesto Tico Valle, CEO at Center on Halsted, said that some elders who are HIV-positive “assume everyone is HIV-positive,” and therefore fail to communicate their statuses to sexual partners.
Both causes raise questions for local service providers about how to reach elders. Targeted efforts tend to focus on youth and gay men, making it harder for elders to see themselves in HIV prevention messages.
HIV is often passed between generations, however. Valle said that youth and elders who are sexually involved sometimes struggle to negotiate safe sex because partners don’t know how to communicate about safe sex in the same ways.
Rising infection rates among Illinois seniors follow a national trend. CDC statistics suggest that HIV rates among people over 50 have been on the rise for more than a decade. AIDS diagnoses in that group tripled between 2001-2005, from 1% of seniors infected to 3%.
Daniel Montoya, deputy executive director of the National Minority AIDS Council, said that until seniors are screened regularly for HIV, service providers won’t have the data to prioritize prevention among that age category.
Finally, national AIDS organizations have been hard-hit by recession funding cuts, and many are struggling simply to maintain programs that already exist. A campaign directed at prevention among seniors might be a far-fetched idea.
Overwhelmingly, Chicago service providers seem to agree that unless the stigmatization around elders and sex is confronted, the trend will continue. But in Chicago, Juan Calderon, executive director of Humboldt Park-based Vida/SIDA, wants to take that analysis a step further. He is seeking greater commitment from Illinois officials to funding HIV prevention beyond just North Side organizations. He said his organization is ready to fight HIV among seniors, but that Vida/SIDA and other West and South Side groups will need more money.
“I think [ seniors and HIV ] is a citywide problem,” he said. “We do work with seniors, but we have the challenges of not enough funding. … The Department of Public Health needs to strengthen its approach, and Vida/SIDA will be ready when they do.”
The documentary, “Aging Pozitively,” premieres at Center on Halsted May 23 at 6:30 p.m. The event is free and will include a brief reception. More information is available at www.centeronhalsted.org .
Test Positive Aware Network, Positively Aware magazine and Center on Halsted are co-sponsoring a community event on “Promising Advances in HIV Cure and Healthy Aging Research” on Tuesday, May 31 from 6:30-8 pm. The free event, featuring popular lecturer, author and HIV advocate Nelson Vergel, will take place at the Center’s Hoover-Leppen Theatre at 3656 N. Halsted.