An HIV/AIDS Trainer's Perspective

September 2011 | Doreen Bermudez

The top 12 issues that trainers, educators and service providers should consider when talking about HIV/AIDS and older adults.

Prior to joining the National Resource Center on LGBT Aging, I was the lead trainer for SAGE (Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders). In this role, I conducted dozens of trainings and talks on HIV/AIDS education for LGBT older people, city and state agencies, and aging service providers.

For anyone reaching out to older people living with HIV/AIDS, or the professionals who serve them, here are the top issues and points I recommend you keep in mind.

1. It is helpful to have a basic understanding of the history of HIV/AIDS, particularly the stigma associated with the disease that many older LGBT people have experienced. Address the stigma in your talks. HIV/AIDS is no longer exclusive to the LGBT community—but the stigma still lingers.

2. Take the time to go over basic issues, such as how HIV is spread, even if it seems like information people already know. Be sure to provide the latest updates on how transmission has changed since the virus was first discovered.

3. Discuss how HIV/AIDS is NOT spread! Myths about how HIV/AIDS is transmitted are common to this day.

4. Recognize that older adults are sexually active and that, in New York City, people over 50 are the fastest growing group being newly diagnosed with HIV and AIDS—a trend likely to continue as the U.S. population dramatically ages. People of color in particular are affected by HIV/AIDS. In NYC, among men over age 49 with AIDS, nearly half (49%) are African American or Hispanic, and the other half are White. Again, in NYC, among women over age 49 with AIDS, 70% are African American or Hispanic and 30% are White.

5. Include information in your training on older adults and high-risk behaviors. There is a common misconception that older adults do not engage in high-risk behaviors such as having unprotected sex with multiple partners or intravenous drug use.

6. Discuss the importance of knowing your HIV status and provide local resources on obtaining a free or low-cost HIV test.

7. Point out that oftentimes, the signs and symptoms of HIV in older adults can be confused with the normal signs of aging, and as a result are not diagnosed immediately.

8. Understand and speak about how important it is to respectfully address cultural issues that might heighten the risk of HIV transmission. For example, talk about machismo in the Hispanic American community or address being “on the down low” in the African American community. Understand that all communities have their own beliefs about sex.

9. Acknowledge that even today, in many communities of color HIV/AIDS is a taboo and is associated with promiscuity, substance abuse and homosexuality. In addition, many cultures have their own myths and misconceptions about aging, sex and HIV; do not shy away from discussions of these misconceptions.

10. Allow participants to share their own experiences of ageism and racism within their culture as it relates to HIV and aging.

11. Bring handouts and visuals (slideshows, charts, etc.) to your talks, presentations and trainings. Adults with different learning styles learn better when information is supported by visuals.

12. Create an inclusive, safe and welcoming atmosphere by acknowledging the fact that in many cultures, sex is not a topic of conversation. Be aware that it may take some time for people to share their experiences. And even if your audience is nonreactive, that doesn't necessarily mean that they do not understand. Participants in HIV/AIDS workshops sometimes feel the stress of confronting issues within their own lives, and may not be comfortable speaking out in a training/presentation setting.

Doreen Bermudez serves as the National Training Coordinator of the National Resource Center on LGBT Aging. Bermudez plans and facilitates trainings for aging providers and LGBT organizations nationwide on the issues facing LGBT older adults and the best practices for supporting them. Read her full bio here.