September 18th is National HIV/AIDS and Aging Awareness Day — a day to call attention to the growing population of older adults living with HIV/AIDS. Many of these individuals are long-term survivors of the AIDS epidemic and have fought both personal and national battles that we can only imagine. Theirs is a story of triumph, living longer and fuller lives thanks in part to amazing developments in medications. But it also has been one of challenges and loss. According to the CDC, an estimated 47 percent of people living with HIV in 2015 were older than 50.
This year, National HIV/AIDS and Aging Awareness Day seems especially poignant — we could learn so much about the COVID crisis from those who have weathered the storm of AIDS. No one understands better than a person living with HIV how it feels when a medical issue becomes politicized. There is no one better prepared to handle fear and stigma. There is no better group to teach us patience as we struggle with the long wait for a cure or vaccine.
Moreover in this current situation, the issue of HIV/AIDS awareness itself has been put on the backburner. It is no longer the immediate threat, although, sadly, there were 36,400 new HIV infections in 2018. In a time of social distancing, when community outreach and organizing is difficult and people’s fears are focused elsewhere, it would be all too easy to forget the daily battle some of us, both patients and providers, wage against HIV. But out of respect for my patients aging gracefully with HIV/AIDS, and those that never got the chance, I will keep fighting.
I am new to the Charlotte area, but I am not new to HIV medicine. One day several years ago, a rather colorful 81-year-old patient informed me “I’ve been taking these meds since you were s#@*%ing your pants, young lady, so don’t think you can just waltz in here and change them.” I looked at his chart — diagnosed in 1982 — and replied “You are right, I was still s#@*%ing my pants that year.” The customer is always right. I have such a profound respect and love for my patients. To watch them face another pandemic is devastating, but I know from experience they have the knowledge and gumption to withstand this next plague.
Laura Veal, FNP, MSN, MPH is a Nurse Practitioner/Clinical Director with Quality Comprehensive Health Center.