Living with HIV as a senior
People 50 years or older now make up the majority of HIV and AIDS cases in San Francisco. Since HIV emerged in the 1980s, treatments have improved -- allowing people to live longer with this chronic illness. So as the number of older people living with HIV grows, so do the other things that come with age -- like access to affordable housing and health care, mental health issues and isolation.
Joe Childress is an HIV-positive senior. He was diagnosed with HIV in 1987. He didn’t expect to survive, but he did. He’s had to manage his illness, and everything that goes along with it, for decades. After years of struggling to find a safe and affordable place to live, he heard about the AIDS Housing Alliance, a nonprofit that offers housing services to people living with HIV. They helped him enroll in a housing lottery out of the mayor’s office, and he won.
Monthly rent in his building is usually in the $3,000 to $4,000 range, but because he qualified for Section 8, Childress pays just $125 a month for his apartment.
Childress was lucky. Low-income, HIV-positive seniors usually struggle to find affordable housing. Many are disabled, live on a fixed income, and some fear that their landlords would discriminate against them for having a chronic illness.
Dr. Patrick Arbore is founder and director of the Center for Elderly Suicide Prevention and Grief Related Services at the Institute on Aging. He says, “if you lose your housing, first of all, you lose your home where you might have been for 30 years or whatever it might have been, 40 years. And then, to try to figure out how do you find a new place that is affordable in the city currently is really hard. And so you have to look at the East Bay or Vallejo. But then, you lose your network of support.”
Dr. Arbore says life as a low-income senior with HIV can feel like a series of tradeoffs. This struggle is most obvious when it comes to expensive medications.
Choosing between quality of life and expensive medications
Like most people with HIV, Childress has dozens of pills to take every morning and every night.
“The average number of medications an older person takes ranges from eight to 12 prescriptions per year, and when you think that one of those prescriptions might be $450 a month, you can see how quickly that adds up,” says Dr. Arbore. “And so we are making people choose between quality of life and their medications. We’re asking them to make a really difficult decision.”
Childress estimates that it’s at least $4,000 a month for his medications. But again, he’s fortunate. Most of them are covered under Medi-Cal. Dr. Arbore says many seniors end up paying for their medication out of pocket because they have trouble navigating the system.
For all the luck Childress has had in getting housing and financial help, he’s still struggling with feeling alone. He has lost many friends to AIDS over the years.
“It was like in 1982 and a friend would say 'well, you know I don't feel well,’ and then they died. I have for some reason not been able to forget them,” says Childress. This is a common topic at Childress’ weekly support group.
Staying connected to a community
Scott Haitsuka is a program coordinator at Open House SF, a nonprofit that helps LGBT seniors in San Francisco with their housing and mental health needs. There, Haitsuka facilitates a meet up for HIV-positive men over the age of 50.
The room feels safe and intimate. Most of these men have known each other for years. I joined them for a session right before the holidays, and it was a particularly tough time for some of them.
Haitsuka is the facilitator, but he has lived through similar challenges. He lost his partner of 17 years to AIDS in 2006.
“All of these group members have experienced a tremendous amount of loss. They have lived in San Francisco, some of them since the late 60s, early 70s. When the HIV epidemic hit, it wiped out a community, if not a generation of men,” says Haitsuka.
Due to aging, these men continue to lose friends and members of their chosen family. Haitsuka believes groups like these help HIV-positive seniors stay connected to a community.
It’s one of the many things Joe Childress says he’s lucky to have.
“I myself am grateful that I have what I have to help me survive. I am heartbroken that people that need the same or similar conditions, do not have it,” says Childress.
He says his hope is that more people will be able to count on the services that have been available to him, and that one day his story will be commonplace.
This story originally aired in February 2014. You can find a reporter’s notebook about Jasmin’s personal connection to this story here.
24-hour toll-free hotline for older and disabled adults offering routine, even daily, phone calls that provide emotional support, medication reminders and well-being check-ins.
Openhouse enables San Francisco Bay Area LGBT seniors to overcome the unique challenges they face as they age by providing housing, direct services and community programs.
Services include: housing referrals, back rent grants, move-in deposit loans, rental subsidies, a credit wellness clinic, tenants' rights counseling, job training and supportive employment, and public policy advocacy.
Let’s Kick ASS is a grassroots movement of long-term survivors, positive and negative, honoring the unique and profound experience of living through the AIDS epidemic.
The Shanti Project's community of volunteers and staff provides emotional and practical support to San Francisco's most vulnerable individuals living with life-threatening illness.