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4 min

Are we doing enough to help folks aging with HIV?

A whole new set of challenges arise as people living with HIV get older

  Credit: Samuil_Levich/iStock/Thinkstock

Arnold was HIV-positive and had no family in BC when Dominic Baril met him.

Baril, 46, has been a volunteer with the Heart of Richmond AIDS Society (HORAS) for five years. He met Arnold, an elderly man who accessed the services offered by the non-profit. The relationship between the two men changed when Baril befriended Arnold.

Arnold was 69 years old and was diagnosed with rapid cancer that eventually took his life.

The friendship was one that opened Baril’s eyes to the unique issues facing those aging with HIV.

Baril, who has been volunteering with HIV and AIDS organizations for 15 years, began working with Arnold by helping him shop for groceries once a week. Baril also accompanied him to up to three to four doctor appointments a week.

“I made the step away from volunteering at that point and became his friend and helped him along his journey. . . it was an honour to help him,” Baril says. “As a friend, I could help with things HORAS isn’t insured for, like responding to a call at 3am to pick him up off the floor.”

Baril ended up helping Arnold get everything in order to prepare for his passing. He says often someone who is aging with HIV may need more support for other health issues.

“It’s not the HIV that’s actually needing the attention from the volunteer or an organization like HORAS, its underlying issues of other illnesses,” he says.

Anne Marie Mulgrew, HORAS’ office administrator, says this isn’t an unusual situation.. She considers accessing food and transportation, as well as loneliness exacerbated by stigma to be the top concerns facing aging members of HORAS.

“Our younger members seem to be able to cope with stigmatization, but for older members, it really bothers them,” she says. “Some of the members have no family at all . . . so the Heart of Richmond is their family.”

Baril says he agrees with Mulgrew’s statement.

“The newer generations who are HIV-positive, there’s more awareness, there’s more education, there’s more treatment and there’s more acceptance,” he says.

He says many members of the older generation didn’t tell family members or friends when they were diagnosed.

“A lot of that stemmed from the fact that when they were diagnosed [as] HIV-positive they were told they had months to live and here they are decades later, still living, still haven’t told anyone in their life they’re positive,” he says.

“What’s happened is when they got HIV 30 years ago their families disowned them, cut them off and they have been cut off since,” Mulgrew says, adding that many of the older members of HORAS don’t have family in BC. One of the ways it counters this isolation is by sending out birthday cards to all members.

In the peer support group Baril runs, he says that a common concern for older clients is losing their support systems as friends age and pass on. “A lot of the times the members don’t necessarily want to talk about anything HIV or AIDS-related, they want to talk about current events, and what’s bothering them in their situation, whether it be home or personal lives,” he says.

“They feel comfortable with our organization to call us friends and family and they can confide in one of us and be able to make a connection,” Baril says.

The Heart of Richmond AIDS Society has been in Richmond for 21 years, supporting those who are HIV positive and their family and friends.

Mulgrew says for many older people living with HIV, food security is a top concern.

As members age, some are unable to make it out to the community dinners the service provides.

“That is a big concern for us because a lot of our members are on low income and very much depend on these cooked dinners,” she says. HORAS volunteers often pick up isolated members and bring them to dinners.”

In the peer support group Baril runs, he says the cost of food comes up often.

“The cost of everything keeps going up but the guaranteed income supplement and pension from the government have virtually stayed stagnant,” he says. “Unfortunately, we see seniors who are not buying their vitamins they used to take or their prescriptions because they can’t afford them.”

To help address this, HORAS offers a grocery card program. The program provides a $50 gift card for groceries each month and an additional $20 to members with children. Under this model, members are empowered to make their own food choices.

“Our program removes that level of having to go stand in a lineup with 50, 100 other people and maybe some of those people are people you don’t want knowing that you are HIV-positive,” Baril says.

Financial barriers to health services are another common concern for those aging with HIV. HORAS offers a supplementary health fund that can help cover medicines not covered by medical insurance, as well as expenses for optometry, dentistry and hearing aids.

Mulgrew is concerned that issues on aging are only going to get more and more pressing as people living with HIV live exceptionally normal lives and life spans. She notes that in the past 18 months, four members have passed away for various reasons.

To better support people aging with HIV, Baril says he would like to see income assistance raised across the board to reflect the cost of living as well as more government assistance to help seniors navigate the often tricky to understand process of receiving support or subsidized health care.

He also says more support for aging populations with health issues like high cholesterol and diabetes are also needed.

“One thing that is very positive is that HIV medication is paid for by the government and we should be very proud of that,” he says. “But it’s all the other medications they have to take that decrease their resources.”

Mulgrew says greater appreciation for seniors and more social engagement between young people and seniors would be beneficial.

“Many seniors would love to interact with young people, but feel people may step back [due to stigma]” she says.

HORAS always welcomes donations for their grocery and supplementary health programs as well as volunteers to take clients to appointments and to sit on their board of directors.

Baril says he believes more government support and overall appreciation for seniors is needed. He says for seniors with HIV, community outreach is a large part of support.

“The stigma is still the barrier that we have trying to navigate our community,” he says.