UW Tacoma professor to help design AIDS policy
Charles Emlet will participate in an expert forum on HIV/AIDS and older people sponsored by the UN Institute on Aging.
Most people think of HIV/AIDS as a young person’s disease. Charles Emlet, a social work professor at the UW Tacoma, says it’s not.
HIV is increasing among older people faster than many suspect, and the treatment of these individuals will become more important as the first baby-boomers hit 60 next year, Emlet says. The issue is beginning to attract global attention, and Emlet’s extensive research on the topic has netted him an invitation to help shape international HIV/AIDS policy this month.
On Nov. 22, Emlet will participate in an expert forum on HIV/AIDS and older people in Valetta, Malta, sponsored by the UN Institute on Aging. The workshop is part of a series of forums leading up to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting Nov. 25–27 in Valetta, a gathering of heads of state from the Commonwealth of Nations, an association of independent sovereign states, most of which are former territories of the British Empire. Participants in the HIV/AIDS forum plan to produce a platform statement on the topic that will be presented at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.
“I’m thrilled to be invited,” Emlet said. “I hope the declaration that emerges will be embraced by the heads of government, and we can make a considerable step forward in helping people understand aging and HIV.”
Serious misconceptions exist regarding HIV and AIDS in people over 50, Emlet said. The most common one is simply that older people don’t get HIV.
“There’s an assumption that older people aren’t sexually active, they don’t use drugs, even that they’re immune from diseases such as this,” he said. “Even international data on people with AIDS from the organization UNAIDS stops at age 49. But people over 50 do get infected and do deal with this disease.”
Emlet says that contrary to popular belief, people over 50 do get involved in risky behavior such as unprotected sex and drug use, which is leading to new cases of HIV in their age bracket. Other patients have had the disease for years. Thanks to advances in treatment, people with HIV can grow old — something that wasn’t true 20 years ago, when Emlet first became interested in the effect of HIV on the older population while working with AIDS patients in the San Francisco Bay area.
“When I started doing this work in the 80s, people with AIDS didn’t live long,” he said.
While working on an AIDS home-care project in 1987, Emlet’s caseload included several patients in their 60s and 70s. At first, he tried to offer them the same services he offered to younger patients. Many of the older patients refused.
“I realized that these people are unique, and they have to be treated differently,” he said. “They aren’t necessarily interested in things like support groups, or outpatient mental health counseling. To many of them, especially the Depression-era folks, that’s just not what one does.”
Emlet has focused his research on HIV and aging ever since. Recently, he’s investigated the services and social support systems available to these patients, as well as ageism and the stigma attached to HIV. Last year, he was named to the Governor’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. He conducts most of his research locally, working with local service providers to meet and interview patients in the Puget Sound region.
He hopes the forum in Malta will generate international interest on the topic.
“Many people talk about how it’s an emerging issue,” he said. “I think it’s been emerging for a long time.”