Lonely and growing lonelier, older Harlem residents struggle with HIV/AIDS

Originally published at NYCInfocus and Manhattan Times

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A senior resident sits on a bench at King Towers. Photo: Sumi Naidoo/NYCinFocus.

Lemuel Jones, 76, is all alone. At Martin Luther King Jr. Towers in Harlem, where Jones has lived since 1958, there is “no place for old men,” he said.

It wasn’t always like this. Nineteen years ago, Jones’s friend Henry Sherwood asked if he could stay in Jones’s apartment overnight. Chronically unemployed and mired in an alcoholic depression, Sherwood stayed for 12 years. When he was in his mid-50s, Sherwood met a young woman from Brooklyn. At about the same time, he started having unprotected sex with young, substance-abusing women from around the area.  Sherwood’s girlfriend got sick and died soon afterwards.

At 57, Sherwood was diagnosed with HIV. He didn’t tell Jones he was sick until three years later. Within a few months, he was dead.

Now, Jones is left with only his grief for company.

Harlem’s housing developments are full of people like Sherwood, socially isolated seniors who engage in unprotected sex only to become even more socially isolated than they were before.

In Central and East Harlem, the rate of HIV diagnoses and people living with HIV/AIDS is more than twice the rate of other neighborhoods in the city, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). 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.

Located just across the street from King Towers is the Community Healthcare Network’s non-profit Helen B. Atkinson Health Center. “There are a significant number of geriatric HIV patients here from the surrounding neighborhood,” said the director, Lissa Southerland. In fact, she said, one in five people of all ages who walk into her center come specifically for an HIV test or treatment. Last year alone, the center admitted a total of 2,647 patients seeking HIV-related services.

A 2010 study by ACRIA, the AIDS Community Research Initiative of America, indicates that Harlem’s older population living in housing developments is more susceptible to contracting HIV than those in other communities. One major reason is loneliness. The study shows that seniors have “social networks (that) decrease in size.” In other words, the older someone gets, the more disenfranchised they become.

One of the study’s lead researchers, Stephen E. Karpiak, found older respondents to his study were “so lonely … I’d ask these older people ‘What do you want?’ and they would say ‘socialization.’ ” 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.

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Dr. Martin Luther King Senior Center in Harlem. Photo: Kurumi Fukushima/NYCinFocus.

Ninety-five-year-old Geneva Brown of Drew-Hamilton Houses knows Karpiak’s findings firsthand. The situation has worsened since Drew-Hamilton’s senior center shut down three years ago. “A lot of seniors got lost after that,” Brown said. “There is no loving for them. Their family doesn’t want to bother with them, they shut down the center and there are no clubs. There is nowhere to socialize and connect.” Both Karpiak and Brown said that this sense of loneliness encourages seniors to seek out sexual contact.

The result is older men in housing developments becoming sexually involved with younger, infected women and taking the disease home to their wives or girlfriends. ACRIA researchers hear this story time and time again.

On a stoop outside a Chinese restaurant near the St. Nicholas Houses in Central Harlem, an older man squats, consuming an egg roll. A much younger woman leans towards him, suggestively caressing his frail, trembling leg. A wide expanse of her thigh is visible through the slit of her leopard print romper. “Give me some money, baby,” she croons. “Let’s have some fun.”

Scenes like this occur frequently around the time of month when retirees receive their welfare checks, said Viola Collins, director of Taft Houses Senior Center. “Young girls look for senior gentlemen to get drugs,” Collins said. “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.” Residents from King Towers, Drew-Hamilton, and St. Nicholas Houses also see this pattern.

Collins believes that such relationships are what spread HIV in the community. Older men won’t risk losing the few sexual opportunities they have by asking these women, who rely financially on sexual activity with multiple partners, for a health report. Collins also says that many male seniors living in Taft are addicts themselves. In their inebriated state, using protection is often the last thing on their mind.

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Lemuel Jones, 76, a resident of the MLK Houses. Photo: Kurumi Fukushima/NYCinFocus.

Jones said this kind of substance-induced judgment lapse is how his friend Sherwood became infected. “He didn’t go looking for nobody,” Jones said, “but the women came to drink or do drugs and they got drunk together and jolly and they slept together … he didn’t use a condom.”

Despite the substantial presence of HIV in these communities, it is still a taboo topic of conversation. Advocacy groups are trying to bring the discussion into the open, but older residents remain reluctant to engage. The stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS makes it an uneasy subject even among those who live with it.

A resident of King Towers, William Newkirk, 58, said that many HIV residents remain unidentified until they are dead. “As sexually active as people are in this area due to drugs, they probably should talk about it,” he said, but they don’t.

A 2006 ACRIA study called Research on Older Adults with HIV  found seniors with HIV have many reasons for not disclosing their positive status including denial, shame, blame, fear of rejection and discrimination.

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.

Mary Hawkins, an 89-year-old widow who lives in King Towers, is one of them. She said that “(HIV positive residents) just won’t tell you” their status and that’s why she doesn’t sexually interact with men from the community. For her, lack of transparency ensures a lack of sex and the intimacy it might provide.

The pressure to hide their disease leaves elderly residents living with HIV in an isolated position. They cannot share their struggle with their community and the community itself turns away from them — but not everyone.

Collins wants residents to know everyone is welcome in her senior center. She said, “Residents worried about HIV might not get the information (and the support they need), but it’s important we deliver it to them.”

By Sumi Naidoo and Kurumi Fukushima

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