I stole this title from an article on the Senior Planet website about the fact that half of Connecticut’s HIV-positive population is over 50. Connecticut hasn’t cornered the market. By 2015 more than half of all people living with HIV in the US will be over 50.
I found that out from a public arts project called the Graying of AIDS, and it wasn’t the most unnerving thing I learned. That 50% isn’t just people who contracted the disease when the epidemic broke out in the ’80s and who’ve survived thanks to better antiretroviral drugs. Older people make up the fastest growing segment of new HIV/AIDS cases in several states. It’s being sexually transmitted. And as the Senior Planet article puts it, “Wherever you live, if you’re a senior with HIV, the chances are you don’t even know you’ve been infected, because we all think of AIDS as a young person’s disease.” According to the National Institute on Aging, older people often mistake signs of HIV/AIDS as normal age-related aches and pains, and often go undiagnosed for years.
“Adults become invisible as they age and their sexuality in particular becomes increasingly belittled and ignored,” says public health expert Naomi Schegloff in an article in the Brooklyn Rail. She’s a co-founder of the Graying of AIDS project, with photojournalist Katja Heinemann. “A while back we met a guy who told us that he thought one of the central problems in doing the necessary outreach is that nobody wants to think that their parents are having sex,” Schegloff continues. “Even doctors assume that they don’t need to ask older patients sexual-health related questions, take a complete sexual history, or test them for H.I.V. As a result older adults tend to get tested and diagnosed later than they should. They then have worse health outcomes.” Older heterosexual women are at particular risk, because vaginal thinning makes it easier to contract all STDs. Which is why, in 2008, women over age 50 accounted for 22 percent of the New York City’s newly diagnosed cases of H.I.V..