Fla. program to educate elderly about HIV and AIDS


TAMPA, Fla. -- Tom Liberti tells a story that puts a new face on the AIDS epidemic.

About two years ago, Liberti, chief of the Florida Department of Health's Bureau of HIV and AIDS, attended a community meeting on AIDS in Miami. There, two people stood up -- a 75-year-old man and an 85-year-old woman.

Both announced to the mostly older audience that they had the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome. They'd contracted it through sexual activity.

"From that point on, you could hear a pin drop in the room," Liberti said.

He and other state officials gathered this past week at the University of South Florida in Tampa to announce a state program designed to educate older Floridians about HIV and AIDS.

Among the myths they attempted to dispel: that AIDS is an affliction of the young, and the activities that transmit HIV -- sex and intravenous drug abuse -- are exclusively linked to youth.

"The HIV virus doesn't care how old you are," said E. Bentley Lipscomb, secretary of the state Department of Elder Affairs. "Anyone, even great-grandparents, can be infected. A virus does not respect its elders."

The program, called Senior HIV and AIDS Prevention Education, or SHAPE, is a joint project of the Department of Elder Affairs and the Florida Department of Health. It will use advertisements, community outreach and peer counselors to educate people 50 and older about HIV and AIDS.

Hidden virus

Initially, SHAPE will operate only in Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa. But a spokeswoman for the Department of Health said the agency has asked the Legislature for $275,000 to broaden AIDS education efforts among seniors in the state's five most populous counties, where the epidemic is most prevalent. Throughout the state, brochures and other materials directed toward seniors are available to Health Department educators, Liberti said.

Statewide, the fastest-growing group of new HIV cases is among people older than 50, according to the Department of Elder Affairs. Of the state's 67,282 cumulative AIDS cases, 8,409 -- or 12.5 percent -- involved people 50 and older.

Not all older patients were infected late in life. The AIDS virus can remain hidden, and those it infects can have no symptoms for many years. Some contracted the virus in their younger years and didn't know it.

Changing attitudes

It's a mistake to assume that older people don't indulge in risky activity -- a mistake that even government epidemiologists make.

Lipscomb said the state has had to wrangle with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding the administration of health surveys, for example. He said CDC surveyors were previously told not to question people older than 55 about sexual practices, because they might upset participants.

Those attitudes, Lipscomb said, indicate a bias against older people.

"I'm over 55. I haven't given up sex. And I don't think most of the elders in this state have either," he said. "Who do they think is buying all this Viagra?"

Education efforts

To help educate seniors about HIV, the state has printed posters showing a gray-haired man and woman in bed together. Bearing the legend "Sex is not only for the young," the posters urge readers to get tested for HIV.

They will be distributed to senior service centers, condo associations and other groups that work with SHAPE, said Edith Ellerson, project coordinator.

SHAPE will recruit and train peer counselors -- older people who have HIV or AIDS -- to discuss the illness with older audiences. Such audiences are more likely to listen to people of a similar age, officials said.

Ellerson said SHAPE is working with focus groups to determine what services seniors feel they need.

SHAPE has a $35,000 budget, shared between the Department of Elder Affairs and the Department of Health. A larger state-funded program serves seniors in Broward County.

Pub Date: 8/02/98

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