At 78 years of age, O. Mae has lived with an HIV-positive diagnosis for eight years.
A mother of five children with eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, O. Mae was widowed in her early 50s. For the first time since marrying more than 20 years prior, O. Mae sought companionship.
But over the years, a lot has changed in the dating scene.
“I was the supervisor of university food services, and Abbott was one of the cooks. I hadn’t been courted in years,” recalls O. Mae.
O. Mae and Abbott enjoyed their new-found love for each other. But 10 years into their relationship, Abbott rapidly grew ill and questions began to arise about his health. He was younger than O. Mae and a heavy smoker.
O. Mae had enjoyed good health for most of her life.
“I’ve been blessed by God,” she says. “God has a purpose for me.”
But during Abbott’s illness, O. Mae suffered from excruciating sinus headaches. Too proud to see a doctor, O. Mae relied on her faith instead, as she had done all of her life.
At 70, O. Mae learned that she was HIV-positive. By now Abbott had succumbed to AIDS.
O. Mae’s children didn’t understand how this could happen. They wanted to know what their mother knew of Abbott before they dated.
“He seemed like a nice, young man — healthy, very charming and an army veteran,” O. Mae recalls. “Women who had gone through menopause or had a hysterectomy couldn’t have babies, so why did you need a condom?”
A generational problem
It was the testimony of an entire generation, one that didn’t have to worry about HIV and AIDS.
O. Mae’s children were devastated but not O. Mae. For the time being, it was a secret to be kept among family and her church community. O. Mae is a member of the ELCA.
O. Mae is not alone. HIV infections among people age 50 and older are quickly rising worldwide. It is thought to be a combination of people living longer as a result of modern medicine and medications such as Viagra to extend sexual lifespans.
Another reality is that messages of HIV prevention do not reach this age group.
According to the World Health Organization, the percentage of people age 50 and over infected with HIV is now higher than that of people between the ages of 15 and 24 in South Africa, where HIV is the most prevalent in the world.
Likewise, the number of HIV infections among Americans over the age of 50 rose by 25 percent from 2006 to 2007. It is estimated that over the next five to seven years more than 50 percent of people infected in the United States will be over 50.
Research has also found that people age 50 and older are now the fastest growing group of people with HIV in the United Kingdom.
People age 50 and over have been seriously neglected in the global campaign against the HIV epidemic, a campaign largely led by faith communities.
In 2009, the ELCA Church Council adopted the “ELCA Strategy on HIV and AIDS” and called on the entire church to respond faithfully and effectively to this pandemic.
The ELCA has also been a huge proponent in the promotion of health and wellness. A message of prevention through good nutrition and physical activity is a mainstay in congregations, especially for illnesses that are more common with age, such as hypertension, diabetes and even cancer.
But for those over age 50, the church rarely has had to address sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV and AIDS. With the combined stigmatization of HIV and age, the faith stories of many living with the disease have gone unheard until now.
Eight years after her diagnosis, O. Mae’s body and soul are stronger than ever. Doctors say that her body is responding to the medications like a teenager.
O. Mae’s courage to make her status known combined with the support of her church and family has encouraged others, like her grandson, to advocate for the once-neglected 50 and older population of people living with HIV.
And while O. Mae has managed to reduce her HIV status to symptomatic, her faith hasn’t been reduced. She says God has brought her this far by faith.