AIDS Preys on Older, Lonely Straight Men

Lemuel Jones in front of Martin Luther King Jr. Towers in Harlem. (Photo by Kurumi Fukushima via NYC In Focus)

Lemuel Jones in front of Martin Luther King Jr. Towers in Harlem. He took in a friend who eventually died of AIDS. (Photo by Kurumi Fukushima via NYC In Focus)

For some low-income elderly residents in Harlem’s public housing, the loneliness of old age comes with the risk of HIV infection.

Posted in Manhattan Times, and originally in NYC In Focus, Kurumi Fukushima and Sumi Naidoo report that middle age and older men turn to unprotected sex as an antidote to social isolation. Rates of HIV/AIDS in Central and East Harlem are twice that of other neighborhoods and mostly heterosexual, found the Centers for Disease Control.

Statistics show one in 38 residents in East and Central Harlem is HIV-positive, compared to just over one in 100 citywide.

In Harlem alone, there are 3,329 people over the age of 50 living with HIV/AIDS as of 2011. In addition, CDC statistics show that these HIV-positive seniors are primarily heterosexual, a trend at odds with the rest of the country, where men who have sex with men are the majority of those diagnosed.

A study from 2010 by the AIDS Community Research Initiative of America found that the elderly in Harlem’s housing projects are at a higher risk of getting HIV than other places, in large part, due to loneliness. According to Stephen E. Karpiak, one of the study’s head researchers, this community is far more susceptible to loneliness to begin with because of their circumstances.

He believes that because older people from low-income housing developments face racial discrimination and socioeconomic segregation, they are even more isolated – and therefore lonelier than most. “These are isolated people due to race and poverty to begin with,” said Karpiak.

Fukushima and Naidoo profile several senior citizen residents in the housing developments who have upclose experience with HIV/AIDS or with knowing someone in the position.

There’s Lemuel Jones, 76, who has lived in the Martin Luther King Jr. Towers since 1958, but calls it “no place for old men.”

His encounter with HIV/AIDS came through his friend Henry Sherwood, an unemployed and depressed alcoholic who lived with him for 12 years. Sherwood was in his mid-50s when he started having unprotected sex with young women who were also substance abusers. He eventually contracted HIV and passed away within a few years. Sherwood had only told Jones about his condition a few months before he died.

According to Viola Collins, director of Taft Houses Senior Center:

“Young girls look for senior gentlemen to get drugs. Older men like younger women. You reach out for company and wanna be with someone vibrant and alive to get out of depression. Young women like money.”

And if alcohol and drugs play a role, said Collins, protection is usually not a priority.

Furthermore, the disease is not just spread by older men having sex with younger women infected with HIV/AIDS. Once the men contract the disease, they bring it home to other sexual partners.

These grave circumstances are exacerbated by the stigma that surrounds HIV/AIDS in the community, leading those diagnosed with the virus to keep it to themselves, like Sherwood with Jones.

Frances Hinton, 66, has lived in the St. Nicholas Houses for 42 years. She said the fear of being treated like an “outcast” keeps HIV positive residents quiet; there are assumptions of infidelity, sexual promiscuity, homosexuality, and illicit activity attached to a positive status.

“If someone loses weight and gets sick,” she said, “the first thing people think is that they have a crack addiction. People with HIV would rather have people assume they had a crack addiction, than that they had HIV.”

As Hinton points out, HIV/AIDS symptoms are often ascribed to other causes, and people who are HIV-positive may not appear sick at all. As a result, it can be an easy disease to hide. This allows older men to spread the disease to their older wives and girlfriends without disclosing their status. That’s one reason why many older women in the Harlem housing developments will not engage in sex with older men at all.

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