From the Philadelphia Gay News

By Michael Byrne

Since the early 1980s, the messaging within our communities in relation to HIV has been focused on surviving. In the earlier days of the AIDS crisis, avoiding and/or surviving the plague needed to be the focus. For many, it worked. People took control of their health. Armed with the standard of care put out by ACT-UP Philadelphia, LGBT Philadelphians went to their appointments with their doctors equipped with the best information available at that time to hopefully survive.

Now there are medications that have changed an HIV diagnosis from a death sentence to a chronic illness. This is nothing new. We all know this. Folks that are diagnosed today have a much different reality than folks did in the 1980s and 1990s. Yet, for the most part the messaging about surviving HIV hasn’t changed. It still focuses on “surviving.”

Part of the reason for that is the specific medications that are required in order to control the illness. Part of this though is also the victim mentality that is propagated by the healthcare system, media, individuals and organizations.

We must change the narrative – we not only need to survive; we need to thrive!

Thriving speaks to a vigorous growth – progressing toward a goal in spite of the circumstances. When applied to our own lives, thriving is about dreaming up what we want our lives to be and making that happen. It is about living our best lives.

Thriving encapsulates the power of positive thought and moving toward acceptance, gratitude and self-love. Getting to this point may require someone to process the grief and traumas they have experienced. This is an ongoing process, especially for members of our communities who lived through the height of the AIDS crisis.

“After an HIV diagnosis, you go through many phases of grieving over how your life was,” says David Gana, a long-term survivor who now volunteers on the LGBT Elder Initiative’s HIV & Aging Community Advisory Committee. “Eventually you go into survivor mode. But you get past that and those feelings of victimization. You thrive, fulfilling your life with new skills, new knowledge, new challenges, and more.” 

This also requires taking steps to engage with our communities and our networks, resisting the isolation that happens to many of us as we grow older. Successful aging with HIV includes building and maintaining support networks, which may seem like a daunting task for many who have lost friends, partners, and loved ones over the years.

In Philadelphia 52% of people living with HIV are 50 and over and another 21% are between 40 and 49. The time is now for us to once again come together as a community and care for each other. We need to be sure that people living with HIV are not only able to survive – but to thrive – as they age.

This month, the LGBT Elder Initiative is launching “THRIVERS,” a monthly discussion, support, and skills-building group for people living with, or impacted by, HIV. THRIVERS will focus on helping each person to age successfully with HIV and live their best life. We will do this together learning from each other and from guest speakers/facilitators who will introduce us to concepts and skills that will help us move closer to our best lives.

The first “THRIVERS” group will take place on Saturday, March 30th from 11:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Church of St. Luke & The Epiphany (330 S. 13th St.). The group is open to anyone who has been impacted by HIV. To register or to receive more information, contact the LGBT Elder Initiative at 215-720-9415 or Director of Programs and Outreach, David Griffith, at dgriffith@lgbtei.org.   

Let’s thrive together, not survive alone.

Michael Byrne is a Licensed Social Worker who has an interest in moving the needle on loneliness in LGBT elders. Prior to Michael going back to school, he was a development professional raising dollars for services for people living with HIV for 20 years. He currently is a therapist at the Morris Home, the only inpatient drug and alcohol inpatient rehab in the world for transgender individuals. Michael serves on the Board of the LGBT Elder Initiative and will be a co-facilitator of THRIVERS starting this spring.