From surviving to thriving: Reframing the narrative of aging with HIV

From surviving to thriving: Reframing the narrative of aging with HIV

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Since the early 1980s, the messaging within our communities in relation to HIV has been focused on surviving. In the earlier days of the AIDS crisis, avoiding and/or surviving the plague needed to be the focus.

For many, it worked. People took control of their health. Armed with the standard of care put out by ACT-UP Philadelphia, LGBT Philadelphians went to their appointments with their doctors equipped with the best information available at that time to hopefully survive.

Now there are medications that have changed an HIV diagnosis from a death sentence to a chronic illness. This is nothing new. We all know this. Folks that are diagnosed today have a much different reality than folks did in the 1980s-’90s. Yet, for the most part, the messaging about surviving HIV hasn’t changed. It still focuses on “surviving.”

Part of the reason for that is the specific medications that are required in order to control the illness. Part of this, though, is also the victim mentality that is propagated by the healthcare system, the media, individuals and organizations.

We must change the narrative: We not only need to survive, we need to thrive!

Thriving speaks to a vigorous growth — progressing toward a goal in spite of the circumstances. When applied to our own lives, thriving is about dreaming up what we want our lives to be and making that happen. It is about living our best lives.

Thriving encapsulates the power of positive thought and moving toward acceptance, gratitude and self-love. Getting to this point may require someone to process the grief and traumas he/she has experienced. This is an ongoing process, especially for members of our communities who lived through the height of the AIDS crisis.

“After an HIV diagnosis, you go through many phases of grieving over how your life was,” said David Gana, a long-term survivor who now volunteers on the LGBT Elder Initiative’s HIV & Aging Community Advisory Committee. “Eventually you go into survivor mode. But you get past that and those feelings of victimization. You thrive, fulfilling your life with new skills, new knowledge, new challenges and more.”

This also requires taking steps to engage with our communities and our networks, resisting the isolation that happens to many of us as we grow older. Successful aging with HIV includes building and maintaining support networks, which may seem like a daunting task for many who have lost friends, partners and loved ones over the years.

In Philadelphia, 52 percent of people living with HIV are over 50 years old. Another 21 percent are 40-49. The time is now for us to once again come together as a community and care for each other. We need to be sure that people living with HIV are not only able to survive, but to thrive  as they age.

This month, the LGBT Elder Initiative is starting THRIVERS, a monthly discussion, support and skills-building group for people living with, or impacted by, HIV. THRIVERS will focus on helping each person to age successfully with HIV and live his/her best life. We will do this together, learning from each other and from guest speakers/facilitators, who will introduce us to concepts and skills that will help us move closer to our best lives.

The first THRIVERS group will meet 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m. March 30at the Church of St. Luke & The Epiphany, 330 S. 13th St. The group is open to anyone who has been impacted by HIV.

To register or to receive more information, contact the LGBT Elder Initiative at 215-720-9415 or Director of Programs and Outreach, David Griffith at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..   

Let’s thrive together, not survive alone.

Michael Byrne is a licensed social worker with an interest in moving the needle on loneliness in LGBT elders. Prior to Byrne going back to school, he was a development professional, who raised money for services for people living with HIV for 20 years. He currently is a therapist at the Morris Home, the only drug and alcohol inpatient rehab in the world for transgender individuals. Byrne serves on the board of the LGBT Elder Initiative and will be a co-facilitator of THRIVERS starting this spring.

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