March 13, 2013 | by Dave Purdy
I’m 80, HIV+ and my grandson is, too

Persons over the age of 80 showed the highest increase in reported HIV infections in the above-age-50 category, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Yes, you read the number correctly and, no, it isn’t a typographical error.

When I read the CDC’s just-released HIV Surveillance Report, Diagnoses of HIV Infection Among Adults Aged 50 Years and Older, I thought immediately of the director Ron Howard’s Academy Award-winning movie “Cocoon.”  In 1985, when the movie was released, the number of reported AIDS cases was only around 40,000.

Cocoon is the story of several elderly residents of an assisted-living facility in St. Petersburg, Fla., who find the Fountain of Youth in an abandoned swimming pool. The water’s magic powers come from pods or cocoons that aliens deposited in the pool. When the elderly men and women jump in, they’re rejuvenated and feel as if they’re 30 years old – and they act it, too.

The estimated percentage of persons living with diagnosed HIV infection who were age 50, and above, according to the CDC, increased 14.3 percent. Yet the rate of increase for those aged 50 to 74 remained stable and decreased for those between age 50 and 64. But above age 80? A big increase.

Where can we place the blame: Viagra and Cialis? Bowflex? Let’s try ignorance. Let’s face it folks, old people are having sex and they aren’t using condoms. Why should they?  First, no one can get pregnant and, second, those age 70 and older don’t have HIV.  Sadly, that statement is only half correct. There are persons over 70 years of age who have HIV.  Yes, there are people sero-converting all the time over the age of 65. Ignorance is a lousy method of prevention. We have an aging HIV population.

Let’s dig a little deeper into the CDC findings. In 2009, more than 40 percent of older adults were diagnosed with full-blown AIDS. In the’80s and ‘90s, 40 percent of these older adults would have probably died.

I have a friend nearing retirement age who has had a decades-long career in the federal government as a senior official in the field of HIV and AIDS. He understands well the challenges within the aging population. After he retires, he plans to open a retirement facility for the LGBT community in South Florida. He made clear that HIV and AIDS education would be a strong focus of his programs, because our aging HIV population is growing and remains underserved.

So, welcome to the new category of increasing cases of HIV: People living with HIV over the age of 80 – I call it the “Cocoon Club” – but don’t forget their grandchildren.

Now, let’s shift gears a little bit.  I want to share with you a story about 18-year-old Jake Forth – a grandson, not mine – who lives in Indiana, a red state. Last June he tested positive for HIV and came out to his parents a year ago about his HIV status. Today, he’s not only out publicly about living with HIV but is trying to fill the severe information void about AIDS prevention in his community – by himself. The reason for the void? Because abstinence is believed to be the sole method to prevent HIV and AIDS.

So what is Jake doing about this? A lot. He’s using his free time — he’s both working full time at a local restaurant and going to school — to educate his peers on ways to prevent HIV.   He also told me, because of the lack of sex education, a lot of his friends are having unintended pregnancies. To reach as many as possible, Jake uses Facebook and YouTube, as well as person-to-person conversations at the local youth center and at school.

Jake said when he told his parents he was HIV positive “they thought I was going to die,” because a family friend had died of AIDS when Jake was 11 years old. He also discussed the challenges of dating because he believes in disclosing his HIV status.  He said dates have responded by walking out of restaurants without saying a word.  “They aren’t sufficiently educated,” Jake explains, “which means I have more work to do.”

I heard Jake’s story on his YouTube post and on POZ I am Radio. Jake believes he would never be allowed to speak at his school; in fact, they refuse to allow gay organizations or alliances to assemble. He also pointed out it’s kind of hard to talk to your Dad about gay sex. So you chat with your friends instead.

When I heard Jake’s story, I thought of another teenager who lived in Indiana: Ryan White from Kokomo, Indiana, diagnosed with HIV in 1984, three years after AIDS was discovered.  Ryan was spat on, cursed at, and looked at in disgust because he was a hemophiliac who contracted HIV from a blood transfusion. Ryan White was a fierce AIDS educator who helped save countless lives before he lost his own to AIDS.

That was almost 30 years ago — and Indiana remains stuck in the same place: Ignorant about AIDS and unaware of how to prevent it.

AIDS education is Jake’s passion.  “If I can help one person not become positive,” he says, “I have done my job.” He wants them to have the information he never received.

Dave Purdy is founder and CEO of the World AIDS Institute (worldaidsinstitute.org). Reach him at dpurdy@worldaidsinstitute.org.

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