When you think of HIV infection, risky sexual behaviors, and AIDS, the image of your 62-year-old grandmother doesn t pop immediately to mind.
And that s a problem.
The number of older Americans infected with the human immunodeficiency virus is rising dramatically, even as the rate of HIV infection among younger people drops. Despite the fact that, for twenty years now, messages about how AIDS is contracted and how risky behaviors must be avoided, there remains a stubborn perception in some people that they are not at risk. This seems to be true for many seniors, who still regard AIDS as a disease only of young gay men.
But statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, the Administration on Aging, and the National Morbidity and Mortality Report tell another story:
Approximately 11% of all AIDS cases are in people age 50 and older.
The number of cases is increasing at the rate of 10% per year.
Over 78,000 Americans age 50 and older currently have AIDS.
In South Florida, a popular retirement haven, 15% of new AIDS diagnoses are in the over-50 population.
Some of this increase is attributable to people who were diagnosed with HIV or AIDS at a younger age and who are moving into the senior population because newer medications are allowing them to live longer. But a worrisome number of cases are men and women who are first diagnosed when they are 50, 55, 60 or older, and who have not thought of themselves as being at risk. In fact, many have not thought about AIDS at all.
It s All About Education
Many seniors grew up in an age when sex and sexual practices were not discussed, not even with their doctors. These attitudes persist now, making it difficult for them to ask their partners to practice safe sex, and difficult to ask their doctors for information or testing. And many doctors are uncomfortable asking questions about sexual practices or drug use of their older patients. Both seniors and doctors may mistake the early warning signs of HIV infection for the aches and common infections of aging.
Until recently there were few community health initiatives on AIDS education aimed at the senior population, but that is changing, due in part to the efforts of seniors themselves. Seniors like Jane Fowler, the 64-year-old founder of the National Association on HIV over 50 (www.hivoverfifty.org). She is typical of many older women who acquire HIV from heterosexual contact after they are divorced or widowed.
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