Seniors and HIV/AIDS: it’s time to start talking

Françoise was infected with HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) at the age of 67. She had just begun a relationship with a man, a few years after the death of her husband.

It had not occurred to Françoise to protect herself from HIV/AIDS. She never thought that it could happen to her.

Françoise was wrong. No matter what your age, you need to take steps to protect yourself from HIV.

Canadian seniors are at risk

In Canada, the HIV/AIDS epidemic is spreading to demographic groups, previously not as affected, including women, but as the ’baby boomers’ move into their fifties and sixties, could seniors be the next group most at risk of contracting the virus?

Many seniors are sexually active

One of the reasons that people think seniors aren’t at risk of contracting HIV is because they don’t think seniors are sexually active. Dr. Marc Ganem, president of the World Association of Sexology explains, "With divorce increasingly commonplace, drugs available to treat erectile dysfunction, and changing sexual mores, seniors have been encouraged to have full sex lives." 1

A report by the Public Health Agency of Canada entitled HIV/AIDS Among Older Canadians states that sexual contact is the major risk factor for HIV infection in older Canadians.

According to the 2006 Census, over a million Canadians between the ages of 50 and 69 are divorced, and that number would be even higher if we counted those who are legally separated. Since many of these people are likely seeking new partners, they need to be aware of their risks of contracting HIV.

Health professionals may not discuss sexual behaviour

We know that HIV transmission can be prevented, but are seniors taking the necessary steps to protect themselves? The Ninth United Nation World Assembly on Aging in 2002 noted that health professionals tend not to question their elderly patients about their sexual behaviour, nor give them the same information on prevention that they give to young people 2.

Identifying the symptoms of HIV/AIDS

It can be difficult to diagnosis HIV/AIDS in seniors because the symptoms resemble those of many other illnesses that affect seniors. Andrew Shippy, a researcher for the AIDS Community Research Initiative of America, notes that Alzheimer Disease, arthritis, diabetes, breast or prostate cancer and high blood pressure have similar symptoms to those of HIV/AIDS. This similarity of symptoms is all the more reason to promote awareness of the risks of infection to Canadian seniors and their health professionals.

Common symptoms of HIV infection include:

  • fever
  • night sweats
  • weight loss
  • swollen glands
  • muscular aches
  • fatigue

Information can save lives

Knowing how HIV is transmitted is the first step to prevention.

You can’t get HIV from:

  • toilet seats
  • public swimming pools
  • touching animals, clothes, utensils, glasses, food, phones, etc.
  • a mosquito bite
  • shaking hands
  • standing close to an infected person in a bus, a train or on an elevator

Four levels of risk

HIV infection is passed only through blood, semen, vaginal fluids, and breast milk and the main risks are having unprotected sex or sharing needles and other equipment for injecting drugs.

Menopausal women are at greater risk
The physiology of the female body itself makes a woman more likely to contract HIV during heterosexual intercourse.

After intercourse, sperm stays inside a woman’s vagina, unlike vaginal fluid which is easily wiped off a man’s penis. HIV concentration is also greater in sperm than in vaginal fluid.

Furthermore, the risk of contracting HIV is higher among menopausal women due to a drier vagina and thinner vaginal walls - both the natural results of menopause - which can lead to small lesions through which HIV can gain entry.

1. No risk

  • Kissing without the exchange of saliva
  • Mutual masturbation without using vaginal fluid or sperm as lubricant
  • Massage and body contact, without exchange of body fluids

2. Very low risk

  • Kissing with saliva exchange
  • Oral sex without ejaculation or swallowing sperm or vaginal secretions

3. Low risk

  • Oral sex with ejaculation and/or ingestion of sperm or vaginal secretions
  • Vaginal or anal intercourse with a condom

4. Very high risk
You should consider getting tested if you or your partner(s) have:

  • Had vaginal or anal intercourse without a condom
  • Shared sexual toys or objects contaminated with sperm, blood or vaginal secretions
  • Shared needles, syringes, or other drug paraphernalia used in the preparation or injection of illicit drugs
  • Received blood products, blood, organs or sperm during the period of 1979 and November 1985 (dates during which no HIV detection test was available) which are deemed to be potentially at risk for having transmitted HIV

  • Source: Clinique médicale l’Actuel

Information like this could have made a difference for Françoise. It can for many seniors.

  1. « Vieillir avec le VIH/sida », dossier spécial, Le Journal du sida, n°176, juin 2005. (The entire special feature can be found at - © Arcat. It is available only in French.)
  2. Ibid