CAMPsafe Summer 2000: Being Over Fifty Doesn't Mean You're Safe
|by Salvatore Seeley|
While walking the boardwalk last week, I spotted a gay couple holding hands. I think the couple must have been in their 60's. I began to wonder, how long have they been together? One year, five years, 25 years? Will I be in the same relationship 25 years from now? I also began to think about the single men who are in their golden years. What services does my program and other programs have to offer them? A lot of our programs are geared towards the younger set, what about the older men I've had the chance to see on the beach or at the events I go to? Older men are prone to contracting HIV just as much as younger men are. In fact, the number of cases among older men who contract HIV is rising.
Diagnosed as being HIV-positive 5 years ago, Martin Williams, of Dover, Delaware, is spending his golden years battling its debilitating symptoms.
Since becoming infected, Williams' body has been ravaged by chronic Hepatitis C, colitis and herpes, requiring him to take three pills every 12 hours. While his treatment has staved off the onset of full-blown AIDS, it has also left him with an extremely high cholesterol count and liver damage from the herpes medicine. Soon, he expects his HIV medication to be changed because he's developing a resistance to it.
"Right now, I'm not that bad, but I'm not doing too good either," he says of the disease. He suspects he was infected by his loverwho left home soon after he became ill.
What may come as a surprise to many is that Williams is part of a rapidly growing national statistic: According to figures released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people 50 and older account for the fastest rising AIDS populationa 22 percent spike between 1991 and 1996, as compared to a 9 percent increase among those 13 through 49.
Still, as statistics go, AIDS is hardly a stranger to this age group. For nearly two decades those 50 and older have accounted for at least one out of 10 cases nationwide.
But what's changing for these older Americans is not only their increasing rates of infection, but the method of transmission. While in the 80's, blood transfusions were cited as the most frequent cause of HIV in seniors, since the early 90's there has been a discernible change. Homosexual and heterosexual contact is now the prime source. Not always having a lifelong partner, the older person reaches out for intimacy and sexual activity to others and might come in contact with somebody who has been exposed to HIV.
When infected, many seniors have no idea that the physical symptoms they're exhibiting, such as fatigue, night sweats and diarrhea, are HIV related. Sometimes it is too late to put them on medications that might prolong their quality of life. As a result, many organizations have sprung up that work with older men who are dealing with HIV. I think the responsibility for education stretches across the whole spectrum of people delivering health care to older men. Doctors and other health care workers must bring up the issue. Also, HIV prevention education has to go beyond the schools, targeting not only seniors but the middle aged who will become seniors.
John Fowler was 55 in 1991the year he learned he was HIV-positive. "I had gotten it from someone that I had been talking to for quite awhile. He was my age and we were both attracted to each other. Both of us had just lost our partners and we were very lonely. I thought because he and I were older, we didn't have the risk as younger gay men do."
The startling revelation came by letter from a health insurance company that turned him down for new coverage because of a "significant blood abnormality." While the insurance company was unwilling to disclose the nature of his ailment, the information was faxed to his doctor. A blood test confirmed Fowler's worst fears.
John says that his immediate response was to go into near seclusion. "I elected to tell a few close friends and those were the ones I knew would be supportive, compassionate and nonjudgmental." For the next several years, his social activities were limited to being with the few who shared his secret.
As gay men, we must really focus on our health (mental and physical). What do we think when we are ready to make risky decisions? How do I feel about being alone? Now that my partner has died, how do I compensate for these feelings? My biggest pet peeve is how much the gay community emphasizes youth and beauty. I believe these two causes make older men (and younger men) take the risks that they necessarily wouldn't take. I know how lonely life can be without a partner or losing someone you love, how hard it is to date, going out to see if you can have sex with a younger man just to prove you still have what it takes. However, to make ill-informed choices because of these emotions is something we really need to deal with. The risks taken are not worth it. We are not immune just because we think we are older and wiser.
News From CAMPsafe
SAFE-Tea Dance: Our next CAMPsafe-Tea Dance is the "Island CAMP SAFE-TEA Dance" at the Blue Moon, Sunday, July 9, from 5 to 8 p.m.
SPEAKER'S BUREAU: We are proud to announce the creation of the CAMPsafe Speaker's Bureau. If anyone is in need of someone to speak on HIV prevention, disease progression, HIV testing and counseling, or safer sex workshops, please contact me at SalvatoreSeeley@aol.com.
VOLUNTEERS NEEDED: Volunteers are needed to help CAMPsafe. Please donate a few hours of your time to help out with CAMPsafe activities. Contact Sal at 302-227-5620 or 302-855-9037.
Salvatore Seeley is the CAMPsafe Program Director. You can reach him at SalvatoreSeeley@aol.com or through CAMP Rehoboth.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 10, No. 8, June 30, 2000.