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Older adults also at risk of AIDS, STIs

When people think of HIV/AIDS the image of a grandparent does not often come to mind. But yesterday’s Brown Bag Lunch presentation by Nancy Orel talked about just that.

The presentation, titled “HIV/AIDS and Older Adults,” was held in the Women’s Center to a group of eight students and faculty. The purpose of the luncheon was to discuss some issues about older adults and sexuality that are rarely talked about.

Older adults are not immune to sexually transmitted infections, and especially not HIV/AIDS. But older adults, Orel explained, are the most overlooked group when it comes to talking about HIV/AIDS and safe sex, and therefore they continue to be an at-risk population. The first case of HIV/AIDS in the United States was documented 26 years ago in 1981.

Since then, the face of AIDS has changed many times, but no real attention has been paid to older adults suffering from the disease.

The fact that older populations have been ignored or disregarded when discussing HIV/AIDS prevention has had an effect on many older adults, Orel said.

“Unfortunately older adults are less knowledgeable about HIV/AIDS because at the time when a lot of information was available they may have been in monogamous relationships,” Orel said. “Now that they find themselves single and ready to date again there is not very much information about safe sex, which is targeted at older adults.”

Another problem older adults face is that physicians rarely discuss sex with them or ask the question “Are you sexually active?” in the check-up room.

“There is this idea, which ageism encourages, that once you become older you should not be sexually active,” Orel said.

The assumption by many that older people should not be sexually active also affects the amount of older people tested for HIV/AIDS, Orel said. Older people are one-fifth less likely to be tested for HIV/AIDS, even though they account for 10 percent of newly diagnosed cases of the disease.

“I think it is pretty ridiculous that most doctors don’t ask older women if they have sex,” said Liddy Schnieder, graduate assistant for the Women’s Center.

Although older adults are targeted in many advertising campaigns for Erectile Dysfunction, there is no discussion about safe sex in those campaigns, Orel said.

“I wish that, as much as companies advertise medicines for ED, they would spend some time campaigning for safe sex in older adults as well,” Orel said.

It is projected that by the year 2015, 50 percent of those individuals living with AIDS will be over 50 years old. Orel discussed the importance of “putting gray hair on the face of HIV/AIDS” in October when she hosted a discussion at a Perrysburg nursing home to educated residents about HIV and encourage them to be tested. Twenty-five of the residents were eventually tested.

Older adults who are HIV-positive face many stigmas, Orel explained. They face the stigma of being HIV positive and also the stigma of being older. This may affect how they seek treatment or support because of cultural barriers such as embarrassment and discrimination.

Orel said the purpose of her work was to start a discussion about sex and STIs in older adults.

“If we talk about sex more openly, then ideally physicians will begin to ask about sex more,” Orel said.

Though progress has been made to bring attention to HIV positive adults it is still a very taboo topic.

“I never thought of AIDS as a disease older people got. I thought of AIDS as a disease which affects younger people more,” Melissa Patterson, a middle childhood education major said. “I have always thought about it that way.”

Orel ended the presentation with a quote from a 72-year-old man named Eric who was recently diagnosed with HIV.

“Older people and older people with HIV still have feelings. Many of us are still capable of doing things. Be patient with us. Accept us for what we are. We’re all different; learn and live with the differences.”

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