In her blog post, Nurse Practitioner Bethseba Johnson discusses her path from work with the elderly to people living with HIV. I enjoyed reading her story and related to some of her experiences.
In the early nineties I went back to school to get my Masters in Social Work. Before graduate school I had worked at the New York City Department of Health, Office of Gay and Lesbian Health Concerns and the New York City AIDS Hotline and had been an HIV educator and activist. I had also just lost my life-partner to AIDS and had decided to dedicate my career to social work and HIV.
So, one day while at my job at the AIDS Hotline, I received a call from Hunter College to tell me that in the coming fall I would be Interning at SAGE (formerly, Senior Action in a Gay Environment.) “Old people!” I thought, “I don’t want to work with the elderly!” I had a million reasons why this would not be a good placement for me: I was an activist, work with the aged is boring. I was a very young man, myself and couldn’t relate to older people. I wanted to do HIV work. Looking back, I know now that I was afraid. I was intimidated by the idea of working with older people, and thought I had little to offer them.
I look back on that year with a deep sense of gratitude – to my supervisor, Arlene Kochman, to the staff and volunteers at the agency, and to the clients I worked with. I think I got back far more than I gave. The work was far from boring. I was constantly busy – doing home visits, helping people get entitlements, doing individual counseling, running support groups. I learned so much about aging in general: the physical, emotional and social changes that accompany growing older. And I grew to appreciate the importance of the gay community for that generation of older adults. I was privileged to hear the life stories of gay men and women who were part of the early gay rights movement. I observed their strength and resilience in the face of discrimination and abuse. And, I saw the impact that stigma can have self-esteem and social involvement – a potentially damaging combination for older adults. I received training on end of life care. And, I learned a strengths-based approach to help people make the most of older adulthood.
Because of my background in HIV education, I was assigned several older gay clients who were living with HIV. Eventually, I took over a support group for people living with HIV. Ours was one of a handful of groups for people aged fifty and older. Many men came to the group, because they felt like outsiders in HIV-support groups for younger men, they couldn’t talk about HIV in mixed settings and they wanted to be in a group of their peers. This was before the era of Protease Inhibitors, so much of our time was spent discussing mortality. I continued to run this group for several years after my placement ended. During those years, we lost several members, and the group was a supportive environment (for me, and, I believe, for the members) to deal with the losses we were experiencing inside and outside the group. But, the group wasn’t just about death, it was was about life, and each week people brought in their concerns, challenges, achievements and hopes, and they knew they could talk about whatever they needed, that they wouldn’t be judged and that people would understand. It was through this work that I developed my appreciation for the healing power of group work.
My experience at SAGE was a great foundation to build a career in social work and psychotherapy. And, now that people are living with HIV into midlife and beyond in increasing numbers, I appreciate my early training in the intersection between HIV and aging even more. By 2015 over half the number of people living with HIV in the US will be aged 50 or older, and we will all need to educate ourselves on the realities of aging with HIV.
To read Bethsheba Johnson’s story go to The Body Pro.