By Heshie Zinman
Every September, we recognize National HIV & Aging Awareness Month to call attention to issues of HIV prevention, treatment, and care for older adults. With successful care and treatment, people with HIV are living long and healthy lives. Yet, we know that there is still a lot of stigma around HIV and barriers that exist for older members of our communities to access the care that we need as we grow older.
Here in Philadelphia, 53% of people living with HIV are now over the age of 50, with an additional 20% between ages 40 and 49. While younger individuals make up the majority of new HIV diagnoses, people over the age of 50 still accounted for 17% of new HIV diagnoses in Philadelphia last year. These statistics necessitate that our systems of HIV prevention and care are addressing issues of aging. We also need our aging services network and healthcare systems to be in tune to the needs of individuals growing older with HIV.
While individuals across the country will still recognize National HIV & Aging Awareness Day this month, this September is different than in any prior year. We are in the midst of a pandemic that has taken the lives of nearly 200,000 people in the United States, most of whom were older individuals and people experiencing chronic health conditions.
Those of us who lived through the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s saw firsthand the devastating impact of political failures to act and the lack of coordinated prevention, testing, and intervention. More expansive data on COVID-19 deaths still needs to be collected and analyzed, but we can be sure that there were many older individuals living with HIV who have been among those who perished in these past six months.
We are also obviously in the height of election season in what may be the most consequential election of our lifetimes. There have been countless actions by this current administration that impose barriers to healthcare, housing, and other services for people living with HIV. The Department of Health and Human Services has strengthened protections for providers to refuse care to transgender individuals. Their cuts to Title X funding have made it more difficult for lower-income women to access healthcare and HIV services. They’ve fired HIV-positive individuals from the military on the basis of their status, promoted discrimination in public housing, and made it more difficult for immigrants to access public services. Their efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act would have left many people living with HIV without health insurance.
The threats of a global pandemic and a discriminatory political administration demand that we continue to show up to care for our communities and push for policy changes that will support people living with HIV. We need to continue to work within the healthcare network to make sure that providers are talking with their older patients about HIV prevention and resources such as PrEP. We need to work with policymakers to make sure that policies about aging reflect the needs of older adults living with HIV. And we need to continue to do the work in our communities to ensure that people living with HIV have access to the information, resources, and social supports that will help them to age well.
This summer, the LGBT Elder Initiative and the William Way Community Center announced the merger of our two organizations to strengthen our capacity to serve the growing needs of LGBT elders and older adults living with HIV. This new structure will allow both organizations to continue to implement the senior programs we have done in the past while also increasing the capacity for new programmatic endeavors to address unmet needs in our older adult communities.
As the Elder Initiative at William Way, our HIV & Aging work will remain a core component of our programming and advocacy. Through our statewide advocacy, Thrivers discussion groups, HIV & Aging forums, and collaborations on annual events such as the Reunion Project, we work to support people living with HIV to form the physical, emotional, financial, and social supports that we need as we grow older.
We know that these services are just one step in addressing the wide range of issues impacting our communities in 2020. There is important work to be done in areas of federal health policy, COVID-19 response, linkage to HIV care, HIV prevention services for seniors, and improving community supports. It remains incumbent upon service providers, advocates, community organizations, and community members to strengthen our commitments to supporting our communities of older adults living with HIV.