The final post in December’s Self Care series is on staying connected.
The research demonstrates that having a rich social support network is integral to optimal aging with HIV. Having friends and family helps one to cope with some of the challenges of aging, and of living with HIV. The presence (or absence) of social support affects emotional and physical health. It is not merely the number of friends that matter, but how reliable they are in a variety of ways, and your satisfaction with these supports that matters.
But, many gay men have lost their entire friendship networks to the AIDS epidemic. Add to this the normal losses that occur with aging and we see that just as people need more support from friends and family to deal with the challenges of aging with HIV, they have fewer people in their life to rely upon.
The challenge at this stage of life is to maintain, reconnect, and rebuild social networks. There are many obstacles to rebuilding social networks. You must know yourself, what you like in a friend, and what you need in a friend (which are not always the same.) You also have to be willing to take a risk and even to experience the potential for more losses. A difficult challenge for people who have lost many friends in the past.
I’ve pulled a few suggestions on rebuilding social networks from Aging with HIV: A Gay Man’s Guide:
Renew old acquaintances. Contact friends from your past or deepen your involvement with extended family.
Seek out people with whom you have things in common. Join an organization. Many of the men I spoke with are in HIV or gay men’s support groups. But the options are as broad as your interests. Are you into doll collecting? Environmental issues? Chess? The Avengers? Macrobiotic cooking? Salsa dancing? There is a club for you. Look at your local gay community organization, AIDS service agency, newspaper, or on the web to find a group that fits your needs.
Talk to a stranger. Strike up a conversation with someone you see at the supermarket, in the building where you live, or the restaurant on the corner. If you don’t know what to say, ask a question. People love to talk about themselves.
Diversify your networks. Your friends should include people from different backgrounds. The wider and more varied your network, the greater your ability to manage what life throws at you. There may be straight, younger, or HIV-negative people in your life who would welcome the opportunity to develop a closer bond.
Don’t wait for people to contact you. If you want to talk to someone, pick up the phone (and leave a message at the beep). Every day. I don’t know anyone who can read minds. No one will know that you need help if you don’t ask for it.
Consider professional supports. You may feel more comfortable reaching out to a psychotherapist, pastoral counselor, or social worker than a friend when you are depressed or anxious.
Get a pet. Pets are great companions. And when you’re walking the dog, who knows who you might meet?
Pursue (or maintain) a romantic relationship. A stable marriage at age 50 is one of the predictors of healthy aging at age 75.
Use the Internet to cast a wider net. The Internet is not a replacement for human contact, but it can be an effective tool to rebuild your social network. Several aging organizations serving the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) and HIV communities have resources on the web. Don’t be afraid to join Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn. They are great tools to stay in touch with people of all ages.
Form a reading group. At the end of the book I outline a strategy to use this book in a group setting. But you can form a reading group on any subject that interests you. Start advertising by word of mouth and then consider where you can post a flier or put in an ad to best reach like-minded people, such as your office or a local bookstore.
Just as a garden needs constant tending before your new plant can take root, you must nurture your relationships for them to mature. Keep showing up. Stay in regular contact with your friends. Time can weaken the bonds of friendship. Find ways to stay in touch, such as the telephone or Internet. Similarly, don’t allow arguments or miscommunication to jeopardize a good friendship. Try to work out your disagreements by talking to each other, or ask a friend or professional counselor to help you mediate the problem. Remember, maintaining friendships is as important as forming them.