Many patients diagnosed with HIV in the 1980s and 1990s have survived and now are entering their golden years. AIDs cases among the over-50 crowd reached 90,000 in 2003, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will account for half of all HIV/AIDS cases in the United States by 2015.
Consequently, health care providers and social service workers are pioneering new ground to treat the growing number of HIV-positive older adults. Timothy Heckman, an Ohio University health psychologist, has been on the forefront of research involving HIV-infected older adults.
Heckman recently received a $1.5 million, four-year grant from the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute of Nursing Research to nationally test the effectiveness of a telephone support group for older adults with HIV.
Seniors often feel embarrassment or out-of-place among what is usually a gathering of young people at traditional AIDS support groups. The seniors have different needs, which may not be met, or they may be uncomfortable talking about issues, such as sex, among younger people.
"The telephone, as a tool for delivering support, is financially and psychologically easier for many older adults," said Heckman, who has spent the past eight years conducting AIDS research among the elderly and in rural populations.
A project four years ago found that a telephone support program reduced depression for rural seniors. The results of that study were published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine last year. Now Heckman plans to expand the geographical scope of the study and increase the number of participants.
"A separate study we conducted of older adults found that support groups which are designed to teach them skills to handle stress, obtain social support and cope more adaptively are more effective than brief therapy sessions initiated by the person or support groups where participants only discuss problems but do not receive what is called coping intervention treatment," Heckman said.
He will further test that concept through the telephone support group study. Nearly 400 participants of the project will be divided among three therapy models, ranging from a 12-week telephone-delivered support group with sessions designed to improve the participants' coping skills to less active therapy sessions in which participants receive individual guidance only upon request.