Will You Still Feed Me…?

I have an idealised image of growing old with my partner and drifting out of this life in my sleep. In this ideal world of ageing, there is no pain, nor any unpleasantness. Occasionally, though, reality creeps into my thoughts, causing me to wonder just what will happen as the years speed by. The fact that I’m the older partner in the relationship doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll be first to die. Nor does it mean that any of life’s unpleasantries are not going to overtake one or the other of us in the guise of cancer, dementia or other illnesses.

The most frightening scenario is one where I’m left suddenly on my own and have to find new ways to cope. It’s difficult enough to adapt to new life situations when you’re young, let alone when you’re set in your ways. The prospect of ending up in a nursing home is something most of us don’t want to contemplate. A quick bit of research indicates that a lot of HIV+ guys perceive that they are ageing at a faster rate than most people the same age and fear the early onset of cancer, dementia and diabetes. But what about those of us who are hale and hearty and making lifestyle choices to try to ease the way into a healthy old age? I guess we’ll find out all about it when we get there.

At 58, and having now lived with HIV for 30 years, I’m trying my best to take a positive approach to ageing. To my way of thinking, my brush with AIDS in the mid-’90s was about as scary as it could get. Having survived and retained my sense of self (and humour), I fail to see how anything could scare me again.

Dirty old man
I decided a long time ago that I was going to become a Dirty Old Man (DOM) in my old age and to that end I’m already working. As a DOM I can wink, make innuendos, pinch bums, eye up and down and generally make a fool of myself in the presence of any handsome guys and get away with it because, well, I’m a DOM and it’s expected. I’m going to derive a great deal of pleasure out of this and brag about every creepy thing I do to other DOM friends, who will be numerous. This behaviour will, of course, come with me into the nursing home.

Now, let’s talk about my concept of the nursing home I will be in. It will have all modcons, from Foxtel and the latest in computer, phone and tablet connectivity. No jelly and ice cream in our gourmet dining room and the 24/7 gym will be staffed by the hunkiest of personal trainers, who will put up with our erratic behaviour. Likewise the male nurses will be tanned and hunky and dressed in the skimpiest clothes available. The nightclub and bar will be staffed by the best DJs and the dancefloor will be zimmerframe and wheelchair accessible. All our pets will be catered for in equal luxury.

Now, with many of the patients in this imaginary nursing home having read my fitness and healthy eating columns, muscle-bound, slim and over-active elders will be the order of the day and day trips to the latest hip cafes will be a weekly experience. Life will be a dream and we will all depart this life with smiles from ear to ear.

The reality
I fear the reality may be quite different. According to NAPWA (National Association of People with AIDS), there are about 19,000 people in Australia living with HIV and of those, about 30 percent are over 49. At this rate there is going to be a rush for the retirement home doors. If you happen to be gay and HIV+, you don’t, at this time, have a lot of options. Considering that a lot of available aged care is run by religious organisations, identifying appropriate aged care is a bit scary. Unless the gay community start to invest in their old age by putting money into gay nursing homes, I fear you and I will end up in a home that will be inadequate to our needs and certainly won’t allow us to be ourselves in the company of like-minded individuals. If we have HIV, I dare say there will be little in the way of experienced medical care and nursing.

In Australia things seem to be moving a lot slower than in the US, where gay and lesbian retirement homes are already up and running. In our own backyard, GRAI (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Trans & Intersex Retirement Association, Incorporated) at GRAI.org.au is a WA-based volunteer group whose mission is to ‘create a responsive and inclusive mature-age environment that promotes and supports a quality of life for older and ageing people of diverse sexualities and gender identities’. In July 2010 they launched a report in conjunction with Curtin University entitled We Don’t Have Any of Those People Here. Though the research is WA-oriented, it would hold for any state in Australia. They point out that baby-boomer retirees are likely to be the first generation to be openly out as they age (which will also apply to HIV people, especially long-termers), which means that service providers, agencies and Government will need to approach glbt/HIV people very differently to any other group of retirees in years to come.

In 2008, the gay press mooted the building of the first glbt retirement village in Victoria, called Linton Estate. A check of the website doesn’t show any info past that date, though a 2011 report in the Star Observer indicates that retirement apartments are for sale from the plan. According to one report [in outdownunder.com] there are to be 120 units, with a heated spa, bar, cafe, library, croquet lawn (just how old do they think these people are?), tennis courts and much more. Construction is now expected to start in 2012. Things about this that make me nervous: buying off the plan for something that doesn’t as yet exist and is it going to be affordable (or elitist), considering that many of us will be surviving on the pension. I have always laughed at the notion of the pink dollar, whereby we are assumed to have limitless amounts of money to live lives of luxury, when the reality is that most of us struggle to get by. I certainly won’t be getting any inheritance and most other baby boomers are rushing to spend their money before they get too old to enjoy it. Let’s hear it for reality checks!

Just a dream
Fantasising about a gay retirement village is all very nice, but I fear most of us are going to find the dream of a gay retirement in diverse and HIV-knowledgeable environments just that … a dream. We also have to look at our unhealthy lifestyles, as we continue to get obese, drink too much and continue smoking (still a big problem in the HIV community), added to problems of social isolation, lack of interests, a drop in exercise due to laziness (let’s not bullshit here) and as you can see, there is a plethora of problems facing us as an ageing community. These things need to be addressed – and fast!

For some, one of the potential outcomes of limited choice is a return to the closet as a way of ensuring security, in conjunction with a move to the outer suburbs and away from the glbt/HIV community due to the lack of affordable accommodation in the inner city and suburbs.

As a 58-year-old gay HIV+ man in a long-term relationship, I need to start assessing the future realities of life, as pleasant or unpleasant as they may be. I don’t want to be left on my own to deal with my old age, nor do I want my partner to be. In all likelihood we will be together as we run into this stage of our lives (unless one or the other of us runs into a particularly hot 70-year-old – with lots of money, naturally), so sooner or later one of us is going to die and the other will have to continue life on their own. It would be cathartic to think that either of us could get accommodation that was both supportive, suitable and met all the social and medical needs of both gay and HIV people. Somebody will decide to do something about this eventually, though in all likelihood 50 reports will have been written on the subject and many dozens of older HIV+ people will have passed out of this life in undignified circumstances before action will be taken. The suicide rate amongst older glbt and HIcxxV+ people would be interesting to know, especially considering that our coping mechanisms added to problems of discrimination and isolation decline as we enter extreme old age.

This is food for thought for all of us, young and old. Anyone who thinks they will never be old lives in Never Never land and anyone who thinks it’s someone else’s problem needs to get a life. Let’s give our elderly the respect and acknowledgement that is due to them.

Tim Alderman
Copyright 2011

P.S: In an article in QNews dated 27th April 2012, the Gillard government announced changes to aged care that ensured GLBTI aged that service providers would be required to support their special needs. The reforms are part of a package to keep seniors at home for as long as possible. GLBTI seniors have been added to the “special needs” category. Aged care operators are required to allocate places in this group. This means that for the first time, places are required to be set aside for these seniors. It is also the first legislation to include Intersex people in the special needs category.
To read the full article go to http://qnews.com.au/article/glbti-seniors-aged-care-bedded-down-0#

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