Live

Watch CBSN Live

HIV Rate Doubles In 50+ People

Happily involved in a relationship with a flirtatious, handsome man, Alice Renwick gave little though to the possibility of contracting HIV.

At 65, Renwick, an infection control nurse at a methadone clinic, reasoned she was too old to become pregnant and the couple stopped using condoms. But then Renwicks's partner, a former heroin addict, discovered he was HIV-positive. When he died, she secretly knew she too was infected. In 1997, she knew for certain after being tested.

"I have no one to blame," Renwick told The Detroit News for a Thursday story. "I was alone, depressed, ego deflated."

Renwick is just one in a population of people over 50 in which the HIV infection rate has doubled over the past five years, reaching 2,394 by January. Officials say the spike is linked to a number of factors, ranging from more active sex lives and the belief that it's mainly a problem among the younger generation, to stigmas about sex and the elderly.

"We have failed to put an older face on HIV/AIDS," said Frances Jackson, associate professor of nursing at Oakland University. "Many agencies that work with HIV-positive clients have failed to address this."

The surge in infections among this demographic is particularly disturbing because the number of people 65 and older is climbing rapidly. But even as their numbers swell, awareness of the disease has not, advocates say.

"It's still a hidden problem," said Jackson, who researched older adults' knowledge of, and susceptibility to, HIV in Detroit from 2000 to 2003. "We don't want to think about older people having sex, so we don't want to talk about it."

Jackson's research shows that while older adults are aware of the risks of HIV, they don't believe it affects them.

The few prevention programs aimed at the elderly have had mixed results, say advocates.

The Adult Well-Being Services in Detroit was the first and only group in Michigan to receive a federal grant to educate seniors and their doctors on HIV and substance abuse among that age group, said Thea Simmons, director of the group's community health promotion.

The group's "Knowledge is Golden" program uses real stories to educate seniors and their health providers at churches and senior centers around Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.

But program officials say they have not been allowed to make presentations at many Detroit area assisted-living facilities, largely because of the stigma about discussing sex among older residents.

Realizing this, some health care providers like Dr. Eric Ayers are becoming more assertive in discussing the risks with their older patients. Ayers, who runs an internal medicine practice at Wayne State University, says many of his colleagues are still uncomfortable engaging in such discussions.

"Many physicians are not skilled and comfortable in addressing sexual health, and drug use and abuse patterns," he said. "There is a need to get comfortable in addressing and asking about sexual health and preferences."

Health workers, say this is no time to be shy.

At the Visiting Nurses Association of Southeastern Michigan, David Perkins said older adults with HIV is a "pretty big issue."

"It's about a fifth of our case load, with the population increasing," said Perkins, who supervises clients in Wayne and Macomb counties. "We have to get the word out."

View CBS News In