Nearly a third of the city’s population with HIV/AIDS are senior citizens who are living longer —a proportion that is only expected to increase.
And that’s a good thing, according to health officials. Dr. Isaac Weisfuse, deputy commissioner of the city Department of Health’s Division of Disease Control, noted that prior to the introduction of anti-retroviral therapy in 1996, people with HIV or AIDS did not survive into their 50s.
“Now, because of treatment and prevention programs, they are living longer and healthier lives. This is a trend we want to see continue,” he said in a speech last year before the City Council’s committees on Health, Aging and Senior Centers.
But because people with HIV or AIDS are living longer, their health is complicated by other conditions. Heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory disease and diabetes account for 32 percent of deaths at age 50 and 39 percent of deaths in ages 65 and over for those with HIV/AIDS.
“Ironically, this represents progress because it means that people with HIV/AIDS are living long enough to die of other causes — the typical causes associated with aging,” Weisfuse said.
Philip Glotzer, executive director of the AIDS Center of Queens County, noted that because people with AIDS are living longer, they face health problems that younger people with AIDS don’t have and their treatment is more complex. He believes seniors with AIDS are not getting the kind of help they need.
“There is no funding for senior AIDS programs,” he said. “We would like to have more programs since the senior population is increasing. It’s on everyone’s minds.”
He noted that most older people with HIV/AIDS have been living with the disease for a long time. And although his organization has a mental health group for seniors, he believes more attention needs to be paid to their problems.
Karen Taylor, director of SAGE Queens — the acronym stands for Senior Action In A Gay Environment — located in Jackson Heights, said that many of her members lost longtime partners 20 years ago to AIDS and may suffer from the disease themselves.
Her organization offers activities for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender seniors including discussion groups, monthly get-togethers and movies. “Most members don’t have a built-in family community,” she said. “Eighty percent don’t have a partner and ninety percent don’t have children.”
About 50 members attend programs each week and Taylor noted that aging with AIDS is an issue, but one that has been around for a number of years. “It’s more of an issue for heterosexual seniors,” Taylor said. From what she hears, heterosexual seniors don’t think to use condoms for sex. “They associate that with getting pregnant, not getting a sexually transmitted disease,” Taylor said.
Gay seniors are better educated about safe sex because they have lost so many friends, she added.
Taylor is also concerned about how AIDS medications will interact with other drugs used by seniors. “We just don’t know and it’s kind of frightening,” she said.
One group dealing with senior AIDS in the heterosexual community is the Jamaica Service Program For Older Adults. Betty DeBatiste runs the program. Her group recently received a three-year grant to do a presentation on HIV/AIDS awareness.
“It’s information for all seniors with speakers and a video,” DeBatiste said. “We go to senior centers, housing projects and churches in Southeast Queens, but we are branching out.”
The program teaches about the signs and symptoms of the disease, testing and the use of male and female condoms. There is no counseling.
“We are pioneers because there aren’t many programs for the heterosexual population. We want people to know it’s a preventable disease,” DeBatiste said.