- TAMPA, Fla. (AP) -- Sue Saunders is 65 and has AIDS. It's not a fact
she hides. Saunders pioneered a project in her hometown of Fort Lauderdale
to educate Floridians over age 50 about the risk of developing acquired
immune deficiency syndrome.
- Her first challenge was getting the attention
of an age group largely ignored when it comes to AIDS education.
- "Yes, there is sex after 50. After
60. After 70. People think after 50 we die from the neck down," Saunders
said. "People look at you like you're crazy. What? You mean, Grandma
and Grandpa are still having sex?"
- Ten percent of all AIDS cases in the
country are people over age 50, according to the Florida Department of
Elder Affairs. In Florida, the figure is higher -- ranging between 12 percent
and 14 percent.
- One in eight Floridians living with AIDS
is 50 or older, state health officials said. Yet when groups are addressed
that are considered at risk of contracting the virus that causes AIDs,
older Americans are often left out.
- Eighteen months ago, Saunders began inviting
herself to small South Florida groups to discuss prevention, promote education
and warn seniors to abstain from sex or use condoms.
- "You're telling people 50 to 90
years old: 'You are at risk for a fatal disease. You just went to bed with
a guy and you don't know where's he's been."'
- Saunders was healthy and active. She
was divorced, in love and in a longtime relationship. Her Bahamian boyfriend
was the spark of her life. They spent lazy days on the water, fishing.
Life was good. That was in 1990.
- Suddenly, her boyfriend was diagnosed
HIV positive. Nine months later, he was dead. She feared the same thing
would happen to her and began saying goodbye to her four grown children.
- A son took her to an HIV-infected doctor
in Laguna Beach, Calif. That visit helped change her life.
- She dropped the self-pity and went to
the Broward County Health Department but found little information. After
six months doing research, she went to Bentley Lipscomb, elder affairs
secretary, who found $170,000 to fund SHIP, the Senior HIV Intervention
- Saunders worked long and hard getting
into the crowded retirement condominiums along Florida's Gold Coast to
give her message. In these building complexes, women outnumber men seven-to-one,
- "The women are starved for affection.
The men are having a ball. They can have all the women they want.
- "Everybody says 'it can't happen
to me. I'm not a prostitute. I don't fool around,"' she said. "You're
never too old. And all it takes is one partner -- if he or she is infected."
- Older people are rarely targeted for
prevention. The health care system, including doctors, often is reluctant
or uneasy about discussing AIDS and sex with them, said Dave Bruns, elder
- "Not only is it an insult, it's
rampant ageism," Bruns said. "Just who do they think is buying
all this Viagra?"
- There are 67,282 cases of AIDS cases
statewide and 8,400 of those infected are age 50 or older, according to
the Florida Department of Health.
- When Saunders left the SHIP program recently,
the demand for lectures was enormous. "Everybody wanted us to come
talk to them," she said. They were scheduling 20 to 30 presentations
- The project was so successful, a second
program was launched in the Tampa Bay area under Edith Ellerson in June.
She encountered similar apprehension as she started talking at senior centers,
assisted-living residences, senior nutritional programs.
- Gradually, the audiences became more
receptive and willing to listen. She brings condoms, urges listeners to
be tested and find out first about themselves, then question their partners.
- "You're not only sleeping with your
partner, but with whomever your partner slept with for the past five years,
and whoever they slept with -- like a pyramid or domino effect," she