On April 3, 2008, my longtime friend Don (last name withheld) tested positive for HIV, the same day as his mother’s 56th birthday. He remembers the day vividly. “I had given blood to my doctor and a couple weeks later, I still hadn’t received a call. I called my doctor’s office and they said, ‘There’s an anomaly with your blood.’ I immediately freaked out and thought, ‘God, this is it.'” Don took the last appointment of the day and a few hours later received his diagnosis, along with a few referrals. He went home “to pull myself together, call my mom and wish her a happy birthday.” He wouldn’t share his HIV status with his mother for several years.
“It stopped me dead in my tracks,” he says of that day. “And even though having an HIV diagnosis isn’t the same as it was 15 or 20 years ago, I immediately saw the end. I had dreams where I would see this road that said: ‘dead end.'”
At 42, Don represents a notable demographic segment of the U.S. population living with HIV/AIDS. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),the highest rates of HIV prevalence, by age group, are among people ages 45-49 and ages 40-45—20% and 16%, respectively. As these people in their 40s and their older peers age, spurred in large part by medical advances, people age 50 and older will make up roughly 70 percent of Americans with HIV by the year 2020.
Yet aging with HIV can be especially difficult. Older adults with HIV report high levels of isolation, yet few community spaces embrace their full identities as older people, people with HIV and, in most cases, given the epidemic’s prevalence, LGBT and people of color. Additionally, medical research has found multiple health concerns related to aging with HIV—and the psychological dimensions of living with HIV, or a new diagnosis, can spur its own storms. Without a large-scale, dedicated response, the “younger” end of this older adult spectrum, including Don, will join their older peers over the next decade in entering an aging system unprepared to meet their unique needs, despite their overwhelming numbers.