On September 18, Cempa Community Care joins people and organizations around the world in recognizing National HIV/AIDS and Aging Awareness Day. This day highlights the many complex issues related to HIV prevention, care, and treatment for aging populations living in the United States.
People living with HIV/AIDS who are older than 50 face many complications. While HIV is no longer a death sentence and can be managed like a chronic medical condition, living with HIV still isn’t easy. Significant social stigmas around the disease amplify already challenging medical routines — strict adherence to maintenance medications and regular screenings among them.
Many people in this age group face socio-emotional burdens related to living with HIV. Through its outreach initiatives, Cempa has offered a support group for those older than 50 living with HIV. Overseen by Robert Cornelius, finance coordinator at Cempa, the group provides an opportunity for people to connect and share their stories. While the program has been on hold due to COVID-19 restrictions, Robert says the goal of the group is to get people out of the house and more involved with the community.
“Feeling socially isolated is a big deal with this group,” Robert says. “There’s a lot of fear in regular social interactions, and many people experience the AIDS survivor syndrome, where people with HIV are constantly asking, ‘Why am I alive when all of my friends have died?’”
Living through the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the ’80s and ’90s leaves many people with HIV today to cope with that traumatic time period and ongoing struggles, including illness or losing loved ones. These generations may have experienced discrimination and neglect as a marginalized group, and similarly, they’ve experienced and been part of the evolution of medications to treat HIV.
As Robert says, managing HIV used to require a hyper-stringent medication routine, taking eight pills every four hours with dramatic side effects. Today, managing HIV can be as simple as taking one pill daily — though even this simplified regimen comes with challenges.
Additionally, aging and living with HIV increases risk for other health problems. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people living with HIV/AIDS are more likely to deal with cardiovascular disease, lung disease, bone loss, and some cancers.
Finding Balance, Sharing Your Story
Through Cempa’s support group, Robert encourages other survivors to create a strategy for taking their medications.
“A lot of people don’t want to take their medicine because it reminds them daily they have HIV,” Robert says. “This isn’t a life-threatening condition anymore. I try to let others, including the newly diagnosed, know that life will look different, but it will be OK.”
Robert encourages people living with HIV to share their stories and for people not living with HIV to actively fight the stigma — and to support people in their lives with HIV.
“If you know anyone who is a longtime survivor, ask them about their story,” Robert says. “You can learn a lot from HIV survivors. Don’t forget about us. People living with HIV are still human beings. They’re still the same person, with or without HIV. They still need love.”