Washington • The seniors who live at the Edgewood apartment complex in northeast Washington have all the kinds of ailments common to older Americans. There’s high cholesterol. Diabetes. Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Last month, though, the city’s health department sent two women to the high-rise complex to speak about a different illness. It’s a disease seniors sometimes dismiss as something only young people get: HIV and AIDS.
“Older people ... they don’t worry as much about sexually transmitted diseases. They don’t see it as prevalent in their community as the younger generation does,” said Gibby Thomas, 55, one of the two facilitators who spoke to approximately two dozen seniors at Edgewood during a pre-lunch meeting.
Numbers tell a different story. The District of Columbia has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the country, and nearly 40 percent of the people living with the disease are over age 50.
Officials say about one in five newly diagnosed cases in Washington is a person 50 or older. And older people are often diagnosed later and sicker than others because they don’t think they’re at risk.
Now city officials are trying to raise older residents’ awareness about the disease, which is spread through having unprotected sex or sharing needles and is treatable but has no cure. They plan to spend $150,000 a year over at least the next two years reaching out to seniors. But talking to the baby boom generation about HIV and AIDS is different from talking to adolescents.
Some seniors are less comfortable discussing sexually transmitted diseases, yet they’re engaging in the same risky behavior that adolescents do that lead to HIV infection, said Michael Kharfen, who oversees outreach for the Department of Health branch tasked with HIV and AIDS programs.
“They were young people with risky behaviors and now they’ve become older people with risky behaviors,” said Courtney Williams, a member of the D.C. Office on Aging and helped put together the city’s new outreach program.
Seniors have drug addictions and engage in unprotected sex just as young people do, putting them at risk for contracting HIV. And any health classes senior citizens took when they were young wouldn’t have covered the disease.
That’s why the city, which has more than 14,000 people living with HIV, has spent the last two years developing an approximately hour-long talk specifically geared for seniors. Speakers bring along condoms. They’ve also created accompanying brochures and posters with images of older people. City officials looked at one other HIV and AIDS program for seniors in New York that was created by a nonprofit, but what they came up with is their own.
For example, they wanted to ease into talking about HIV and AIDS, so the session is being advertised as a general talk about sexual health and relationships. The talk then moves on to standard prevention topics — like condom and needle use — but in a different way.
Presenters explain that just because a woman has hit menopause and can’t get pregnant doesn’t mean she should write off condoms, which protect against HIV. They warn participants that if they’re diabetic and inject themselves with insulin that they shouldn’t share needles, which can spread the disease.
They also talk about Viagra and the effect it has had on senior communities. Facilitators say they’ve heard stories of men who have relationships with more than one woman in their senior apartment complex, increasing their and their partners’ risk for HIV.
Facilitators also take questions and try to combat misconceptions. At Edgewood, for example, one man worried about taking an oral HIV test that facilitators encouraged.
“If someone is over 50, what are the chances the test would cause an infection?” asked 69-year-old Albert Price, a diabetic who said his doctor has never offered him an HIV test.
He was assured that the oral swab used for an HIV test does not actually contain any virus.
Part of the message to seniors is also to nudge their kids and grandkids to be safe and get tested, a topic that doesn’t come up at sessions for younger people.
Frances Prophet, 80, said after the session that she doesn’t generally talk to her three children about sex. They’d think she’s crazy if she did, she said. But she might have some questions the next time she sees her son.
“I’ll probably ask him about the test and everything,” she said.