“Fragile Networks of Social Support” Still a Concern Among Middle Aged and Older People with HIV

In a 2005 study of HIV over fifty Shippy and Karpiak described this group as having “fragile networks of social support.” The study participants had little support from family, and relied mostly on the involvement of peers, many of whom were living with HIV themselves. This finding concurred with earlier research on HIV over fifty. Study of this population found that people over fifty had a smaller network of social support, had fewer emotional and instrumental supports, were less involved in social service organizations, and reported less satisfaction with their support networks than younger people living with HIV.

A recent ACRIA needs assessment of older clients at GMHC conducted by Brennen, Karpiak, London and Seidel concluded that lack of support continues to be of concern. They found that the limits of social networks documented in earlier studies were also found in this population. And, that perceptions of support availability and adequacy were also low in this group. (A copy of this report will be available soon.)

There are many reasons why middle aged and older people would have less support than younger people living with HIV. As we age our networks of social involvement do get smaller. We tend to rely on smaller groups of more intimate companions. And, loss of family and friends can contribute to smaller circles of social support. Research in this area has also shown that middle aged and older people experience a double stigma of HIV and age and that anticipated stigma affects one’s interest in asking for help from friends, family, and service providers, including AIDS care organizations.

In my research I found that loss plays a significant role in limiting the support networks of middle aged and older people living with HIV. This generation of survivors have had their social networks decimated by HIV. Their peer group is gone, the very people they would rely upon to deal with the challenges of aging. And, many are reluctant to make new friends, for fear of opening themselves to further losses.

However, as this research implies, it is imperative that your social support system be strong to meet the challenges of aging with HIV.

To begin to assess the strength of your support network, ask yourself these few questions: How satisfied are you with your support network? Do you have someone to rely on if you were ill? If you needed someone to take you home from a medical procedure? To offer advice or assistance if you got caught in a financial jam? To talk to when you are stressed out? Is there someone you can lean on if you are feeling down? Someone who would drop everything if you needed them right away?

How often did you rely on the same person? What if they weren’t available?

Now, consider what steps you have taken to expand your social networks, to keep in contact with friends and family, to reach out to people, or make new friends.  What gets in the way of doing more to build your social support?

Rebuilding, maintaining, and enhancing your social supports takes effort. In Aging with HIV: A Gay Man’s Guide I discuss strategies for developing a strong social support network. The book offers tools to assess the adequacy of your support network, strategies for overcoming obstacles to social involvement, and guidance on how to rebuild your networks of social support. Maintaining adequate social supports is an integral step to optimal aging with HIV.

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