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Shades of Gray

Fact or Fear : Elders Must Become Involved in Promoting AIDS Education

January 24, 1991|Agnes Herman | Agnes Herman is a writer, lecturer and retired social worker living in Lake San Marcos

By the year 2030, the baby-boom population will become our nation's senior citizens. My own children are both baby-boomers, both a bit past 40. When they passed that milestone, they moaned about being "over the hill."

At age 69, I certainly do not feel "over the hill," but I am concerned that one of my children might not achieve the time of life that we "shades of gray" folks cherish.

My son is HIV positive.

That means there is an insidious virus in his system that can cause him to become ill with AIDS. He is now vulnerable to a myriad of infections that the HIV virus will welcome, infections that his system will be unable to withstand. I know that my husband and I are not alone in our concern. Many of our contemporaries share such fears because they have a child or niece or nephew, perhaps a grandchild or friend, who is HIV positive or sick with AIDS.

As we read and hear daily medical reports, we realize that the vulnerable group is not limited to gays, hemophiliacs or drug abusers. Our generation's straight, drug-free children and grandchildren are also at risk. Even our contemporaries are at risk.

It is time to end the complacency of our grandparenthood. Since 1987, in San Diego alone, 2,307 people have been found to have AIDS. Of that number, 60% have died. Twenty-nine thousand individuals have been infected with the HIV virus. The majority of them--some say up to 90%--will come down with AIDS.

In all of these United States, more than 1 million men, women and children are infected with the AIDS virus. By the end of this decade, most of them will be sick; many will be dead.

As elders of experience and settled ways, most of us do not feel vulnerable, but we know that members of our families and our friends are threatened. Our teen-age grandchildren, who feel powerful and immune, are extremely vulnerable. Most teen-agers who are sexually active take no precautions against pregnancy or AIDS . . . and most teens are sexually active. Can we help them protect themselves? Can we help their parents and teachers teach them to protect themselves and society?

AIDS needs to be understood, not feared.

We must help; we must be involved. As a beginning, we need to educate ourselves, to learn about AIDS and how it is spread. A good place to start is the public library, where the bibliography will guide you to informative books and videotapes for all ages.

You can increase your understanding by attending educational workshops presented by religious and service organizations. This Sunday, KPBS-TV (Channel 15) will focus on AIDS and seniors, during its "Seniors Speak Out" series, at 5 p.m.

Once we are educated, we can reach out to the sick.

Pastor Stan Miller of the Meadowlark Community Church in San Marcos and members of his congregation, which is mostly retirees, are reaching out to people with AIDS.

"I care about human beings and I am putting that caring to work," said Miller. Each week, the pastor and several church members visit Fraternity House in Oceanside, a residence for homeless people with AIDS.

They talk with the patients, listen to them and comfort them. Some of the visitors bring handmade sweaters and scarves, home-baked cookies, a meal. While demonstrating their caring, they learn about AIDS and about those who suffer from it.

Fraternity House is the only shelter of its kind in North County. According to director Mike Maloney, its residents are in limbo between the hospitals they have just left and the homes in which they are no longer welcome. They need a great deal of tender loving care, often having been abandoned or rejected by lovers, partners and family. That rejection is part of the AIDS fallout; people with AIDS frequently find themselves alone.

Fraternity House is a haven. Funds, unfortunately, are scarce; private donations and the residents' disability payments support the budget.

Volunteers are needed to provide rides to doctors' appointments and even to drive someone who is ill to the beach to watch the sunset. Visitors are needed to offer friendly chats and to share their skills. While my husband and I were visiting Fraternity House, a woman was packing up her massage table and towels. She visits the house once a week and donates her talent. We all have skills worth sharing.

The AIDS Foundation of San Diego has a North County office in Vista (601 Eucalyptus, 945-6000). This agency reaches out to people with AIDS, providing buddies, transportation, hospital visitation, support groups, counseling and legal guidance. According to Karyn Zamora, the foundation fills non-medical needs of the sick. In other words, where the doctors leave off, this agency trains volunteers to take over.

While the bulk of volunteer training takes place in San Diego, the North County program is expanding. In February, the foundation office in Vista will train buddies, matching volunteers to patients as friends. It is eager, also, to create its own food bank. Zamora is enthusiastic about the involvement of seniors in the program of outreach to people with AIDS.

AIDS is unlike any other disease that our society is facing. Fear and loathing accompany it. Sensible and educated elders can substitute learning for loathing and facts for fear by setting an example for others. We can teach what we have learned to adults and children in our churches and synagogues, to our friends at the next cocktail party or our family at its next gathering. We can make a difference.

How comforting it would be for any of us touched by AIDS to learn that there is a segment of society whose members care and understand.

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