Elderly account for nearly a quarter of HIV cases.
Last month PBS aired "Endgame," a two hour exploration into the AIDS crisis in black America. Viewers watched as people, including basketball hall of famer Earvin 'Magic' Johnson, recounted their stories of living with HIV, but most were far more captivated by the infinitely less famous Nell Davis, a woman who recently learned she was infected when she discovered an HIV positive diagnosis tucked into a Bible belonging to her husband--a deacon. At 64 years old, Davis became an unwitting member of an often forgotten group that fails to register on the radar of medical advisors or AIDS prevention initiatives.
Though HIV awareness campaigns tend to focus on the sexually active 18-34 year old age range, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women's Health reports that 24 percent of people living with HIV are age 50 or older.
Getting diagnosed and treated at such an age can be devastating, and hard to come by, as both pride and physiology play twin roles in putting older women at great risk.
CDC spokesperson Salina Cranor said, "When you talk about people who are 50 and over, of all race and ethnicities, one of the things that needs to be understood is that they may have fear or discomfort in discussing their sexual history with their health care providers, and health care providers may underestimate their older patients' risk for HIV and miss opportunities to provide counseling and testing."
In addition, according to the National Institute on Aging, vaginal dryness and thinning often occurs as women age, increasing the chance that sexual activity can lead to small cuts and tears, thus raising the risk for HIV/AIDS.
NIA also notes that because women tend to live longer than men, and because of the rising divorce rate, many widowed, divorced and separated women are dating. And because few worry about getting pregnant, they are less likely to practice safe sex.
But putting the age component aside, there are a number of factors that put African American women, in particular, at greater risk of HIV infection, including diminished access to health care and insurance (deterring them from receiving tests and treatment until it's too late); possible financial dependence on a lover, which limits their ability to negotiate safe sex; and the higher rate of incarcerated black men that often leads to concurrent relationships (multiple relationships that overlap in time)—and spread of HIV—in African American communities.
Cranor does note that the reported growth in infections among older people is more likely due to untreated patients versus new cases. She said, "When you're looking at new cases of HIV infections among people aged 50-plus, you're talking about maybe 1 in 10." She maintains that the most at-risk group, according to the latest HIV infection data from the years 2006 to 2009, are "African American men who have sex with men."
At the age of 53, Kathy Bobo would not be considered a new case. In 1992 Bobo contracted the HIV virus from her husband, an injection drug user who relapsed after years of sobriety. They remained married until his death twenty years later, but the silence that surrounds her infection still affects her today, especially in her career as a caregiver.
"I'm not really sure that a lot of stigma is not still in place," she said, "so I don't tell anybody my status when I go on a job because I wear gloves, I do all the preventive stuff and they freak out sometimes - from my experience - so if they don't ask me, I don't tell, but that's the only instance that I don't say anything because it could mean me not getting a job, you know?"
While there may not be a fast growing epidemic among her cohorts, Bobo feels her demographic could be better served.
"That would be cool to ride by on the highway and see billboards of older African American women with gray hair for AIDS prevention," she said. "I guess they need to give a refresher course and say, 'Hey we're forgetting about these ladies here.'"