February 7, 2016 marks the 16th National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (NBHAAD), a national HIV testing and treatment community mobilization initiative targeted at Blacks in the United States and the Diaspora. This year’s theme is “We are Our Brother/Sister’s Keeper: FIGHT HIV/AIDS.” I had cause to take a moment to reflect on the impact that HIV/AIDS has on my life, particularly as a Gay Black Man. The HIV/AIDS pandemic has been with us since 1981, and I have worked in the HIV/AIDS prevention and care field since the mid-eighties as a caregiver, volunteer, service provider, and administrator. I have often referred to those days as the “time of darkness,” as an HIV diagnosis meant pain and heartache, both physical as well as emotional; at that time, there were very few medicines or medical interventions available. My mind floods with the names of friends, clients and loved ones who were taken far too soon.
Several months ago, a close friend who is in his sixties and lives in another part of the United States called to informed me he had tested positive for HIV. I was a bit taken aback: this friend had tested negative for years and understood HIV prevention practices. He was very upset but not for the reasons I would have thought. He complained that he didn’t feel supported on his journey for information and medical care. Most of the staff he encountered were in their 20’s and 30’s and could not relate to him being a sexually active senior. He was concerned about how his HIV diagnosis would impact his senior housing and how his neighbors would react if they found out. He said one younger staffer at the HIV/AIDS service provider treated him as if he was a “dirty old man.” I asked him if he knew about Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and he said he did but thought it was for younger Gay men. He said was shocked to find ageism so rampant as he tried to access care and treatment.
I gave him additional resources, and I also did a little research on the impact of HIV/AIDS on people over 50. In 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated the rate of new HIV infections among people over 50 was 17%. Also, the CDC estimates that by 2020, over 50% of People Living with HIV/AIDS will be over the age of 50. In 2014, 44% of new HIV infections were African Americans, who only make up 12% of the population. These statistics and my friend’s call to me were stark reminders that we must include all parts of our community in our HIV/AIDS prevention outreach efforts, care, and treatment. Many of our seniors are sexually active and vulnerable to the same circumstances of the lack of information and support as the younger and more visible members of the community. On this NBHAAD, remember: we are our brother and sister’s keeper, from our teens to our seniors. Let’s fight HIV/AIDS together!
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.