Long-term survivors have had unexpected lives, but many face accelerated aging and grief over lost friends
By Linda Dahlstrom, Health editor
Bill Rydwels is 78, but he hasn’t celebrated his birthday since 1985.
On that day all those years ago, his partner of 17 years, Franco Prieto, died of AIDS. Now, every Oct. 9 calls into sharp contrast all that Rydwels lost — and all that remains as he turns another year older.
He has lived to be a senior citizen, something that seemed unimaginable to him back when he tested positive for HIV in 1985 — the first year the test was available. Then, the Chicago man only expected to live another year or so.
Now, his doctor jokes that he’ll live to be 100. But sometimes, on his down days, he says, “The older I get, the more I wonder, why am I still here when everyone is gone?”
Like other long-term survivors of the pandemic that officially began 30 years ago this month with a medical report about gay men who were gravely ill, Rydwels lives with the duality of bonus years of life he never expected — and the loss of myriad friends. Like him, many are facing not only the ravages of old age, but also the cumulative effects of living for years with AIDS, which is now understood to accelerate the aging process.
More than 30 percent of all those with HIV are 50 years old or older, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for 2008, the most recent year for which data is available. That’s up from 26 percent in 2006.
Now, geriatricians are incorporated into the care of HIV patients, said Dr. Brad Hare, an expert on HIV and aging and the medical director of San Francisco General Hospital’s HIV/AIDS clinic, Ward 86.
“If you’d told someone that 10 years ago, they’d think it was science fiction,” Hare says, adding that the average age of the clinic’s 3,000 patients is now 46.
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