I want to talk about the life cycle of those who engage in HIV work, because it’s bothering me. It bothers me from a personal perspective because as an older adult I am nearing the end of that cycle. But it also bothers me that as community we seem kind of impervious to the consequences of not only aging but becoming aged. And as HIV advocates who stick up for minorities, accommodate those who need accommodation, we seem to have hit a blind spot.
To put this in a wider context, discussions on HIV and aging routinely turn their back on the aged. We extol endlessly about the JOURNEY that is HIV and aging, but far, far less about the DESTINATION. And I’m not talking about the FINAL destination but what would normally be considered one’s retirement years.
Do HIV advocates in fact retire like everyone else, or are they the HIV equivalent of the Energizer Bunny, keeping going until their batteries run down – or worse. I’m seeing increasing evidence that more and more are doing the Energizer Bunny thing. And I hate to say it but I think I’m one of them.
Look around and you will see I’m not alone. People are working at HIV, particularly in the volunteer sector, for a long time. Some of our best advocates are getting on in years – not beyond their “best before” date but on the contrary, doing really good work. Frequently they do so because they love the work. They have skills that they have acquired through many years in the trenches, They are sought after still for this cause or that because they often are movers and shakers. They have value.
They don’t always have exit plans; they work until they are too tired to do it, or just can’t. Retirement is something down the line. They sacrifice, quite voluntarily, their golden years. Arguably it’s their fault, their choice to work well past the conventional age of retirement. It is mine.
In truth, retirement for me (sort of) came about in my 40’s. I was working incredibly hard then in one of the ivory towers at King and Bay in Downtown Toronto. Banking. I didn’t like my job. So when an HIV diagnosis came along it looked a lot like an early retirement option. The lure of long-term disability beckoned, even though “long-term” was a misnomer, a tenuous concept, in those days. Most of us died. I didn’t.
What I did do, rather than sit at home, were two things of which only one lasted the course. I joined a gym and I plunged into volunteer HIV work. Guess which one took?
Twenty four years later, as the publisher of PositiveLite.com I’m still busy, sometimes incredibly so. I work full days and worry about stuff, like many of us do, well into the evening. Weekends aren’t much different. And to my chagrin, I have no real plans for changing that, even though physical limitations start to intrude.
I admire those who plan a graceful exit; l am not one of them.
I like to think I mentor, try to influence a generation younger than mine, although hopefully not showing the degree of crankiness that I’m convinced comes with increasing years that we struggle to suppress.
I like to think our generation of advocates has the respect of others; I think it does,
I also like to think that others will tell me when I’ve become too old for this work. I’m not sure that realization will come easily. We older folks need counselling too but we seldom get it because we don’t ask for it. We are too proud, perhaps too set in our ways. Aging does that to you. I’m not sure it’s a good thing.
It’s a mistake to think we don’t need help. Maybe there is a need for research on our needs. Maybe we need an intervention. Maybe someone needs to pull the plug for us. Maybe we need a conference on aging which actually acknowledges us, which probes both our worth and our challenges.
Maybe we just need more naps.