by Dr. Gail Barouh
May 30, 2012 is National Senior Health and Fitness day where 100,000 older adults will participate in activities at more than 1,000 locations throughout the U.S. The common goal for the day is keeping older Americans healthy and fit. LIAAC had this goal in mind when we created our “Seasoned Adult” program responding to the emerging and lesser known HIV and substance abuse epidemic among adults aged 50 and over. It addresses the need for outreach, prevention services, and testing in Long Island communities disproportionately affected by HIV, Hepatitis, Sexually Transmitted Diseases (HIV/HCV/STD) and substance abuse (SA), specifically targeting our region’s at-risk, ethnic/racial minority populations age 50 and older.
Over the last 50 years, the age distribution of the US population has shifted due to longer life expectancies, and Long Island is in synch with that trend. According to the Long Island Index (Rauch Foundation, 2009), between 2000 and 2006, the share of the Long Island population aged 55 and over grew by 2.5 percent, well above the national growth rate of 1.9%. As the number of older adults in our region increased, the need for targeted, culturally competent HIV/HCV/STD and SA prevention and treatment services increased as well and LIAAC is ready to take on this new challenge.
LIAAC has over 25 years of experience in providing field based HIV and SA prevention services and has recognized that despite myths that older adults are not at risk for HIV, this population is, in fact, engaging in risky behaviors. According to the New York State HIV/AIDS Surveillance Annual Report for Cases Diagnosed Through December, 2007, 18% of new HIV infections on Long Island and 30% of late diagnoses (progressing to AIDS within one year) were among older adults. The CDC estimates that by 2015, people over 50 will account for half of all Americans living with HIV. “Older adults are among the priority populations for substance abuse and HIV prevention activities in Nassau County,” stated Maria Torroella Carney, Commissioner of Health.
Older adults face specific cultural, social and biological risk factors that increase their susceptibility to HIV infection, as well as substance abuse. Having lived much of their lives in a time when HIV was unknown, many older adults perceive HIV as being a gay-related disease or one that only sexually active, younger people need to be concerned with. Many older adults are divorced or widowed and may be dating. Unfortunately, this population may never have received formalized training and education on HIV/STD prevention like our young people do, and few would think of using condoms or would even be aware of how to use them correctly. With more time for sexual activity and the use of medications such as Viagra to increase the frequency and length of sexual encounters, more seniors are putting themselves at risk for contracting HIV/HCV/STDs.
Substance abuse among the senior population is especially dangerous because symptoms of substance abuse can mirror those of other disorders such as diabetes, dementia, and depression making it difficult to diagnose. That being said, dangerous drug interactions can occur when seniors are abusing alcohol and doctors prescribing their medicine are unaware of their substance abuse. It is difficult to speak with seniors about substance use due to the way they feel about the stigma associated with it.
If you would like to learn more about LIAAC’s Seasoned Adult Program, please feel free to contact us at 1-877-865-4222