December 1st was World Aids Day and I’ve been looking all month for something, anything, that took on age as a factor in the HIV pandemic. So now, still disappointed at the end of the month, I’m going to raise the issue myself.
For after all, one of the explanations for how good sex is in the second half of life is that we no longer have to worry about the crap that so vexed us years ago. No one to chide us; no unformed religious fears to grapple with; no laws to stop us for being underage; no kids in class passing ugly rumors that we put out; not even much in the way of pregnancy worries.
However, according to the National Association on HIV Over Fifty (NAHOF), up to 15% of AIDS cases involve over-50s and there’s evidence that the infections rose twice as fast among older than younger people. Read that last line again, please.
Among women who are HIV+ one health project says, 18% are over 50 – and they are disproportionately women of color.
And it’s not only NAHOF. According to The Gerontologist Journal, there’s finally evidence of how little HIV prevention programs are doing for older people. Researchers asked all 50 state departments of public health to send along their printed materials that target older adults. The good news is that they had an amazing 100% response rate; the bad news is that according to those responses only 15 states actually had something to show. In short, only 30% of USA states are bothering about the rise in HIV among people over 50.
And why do you think this is so? Clearly people are making a lot of assumptions about our supposed lack of mattress-bouncing. They think that we’re no longer doing the tumble and so they don’t imagine that we’re at risk. They probably don’t think of us as sexual creatures at all.
I remember how aggravated a friend in her late 50s was when she went for an annual physical. When she asked her doctor about getting a hepatitis vaccination, she was told that it was only necessary for sexually active people. “But I’m a complete slut,” she protested. “I’m sure I’ve slept with more lovers than you this year.”
This is dangerous to our health. Too often, HIV+ older people only get diagnosed when they are already frighteningly symptomatic. With more mature immune systems, this means that we’re fighting an advanced infection with weaker tools. Not many drug studies include older people and little is known about how treatment drugs interact with those for high blood pressure, osteoporosis or heart disease.
We need the education. Many of us discovered our own and others’ erectile tissues long before HIV was an issue and long before condoms were fundamental to anything other than preventing “mistakes.” Many of those who are widowed or divorced in midlife are suddenly out there cruising in the meat market for the first time in decades. They may have little or no familiarity with the risks of 21st century sex or the use of latex. And as drug therapies keep HIV+ people alive longer, older people are even more in need of some attention from the health authorities.
Before the month ends and the New Year begins, think back to all the coverage over World AIDS Day and try to remember if you saw ads or posters with grey haired or wrinkled models. I didn’t see one image of someone over 50 and to me that’s tantamount to neglect.