In honor of the National HIV/AIDS and Aging Awareness Day (September 18) and National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness day (September 27), we’re highlighting the inspiring efforts of San Francisco AIDS Foundation’s 50-Plus Network to provide services and support to gay, bisexual, and transgender men age 50 and older in the Bay Area.
The 50-Plus Network, developed by Jeff Leiphart, PhD, and Noah Briones, MFT, and currently managed by Vince Crisostomo, offers a growing number of opportunities for older gay men in the San Francisco area to improve health and well-being, connect with peers, and give back to their community.
San Francisco AIDS Foundation devotes special attention to these members of the “AIDS Generation” because, Leiphart explains, “this is a group of folks that didn’t expect to be alive when they were originally infected with HIV, and didn’t expect to be growing old. A key aspect of this group who are living with HIV, or impacted by it and not necessarily HIV positive, is that they’re socially isolated. For a variety of reasons, they’ve lost social connections. The 50-Plus Network was formed to help them create a group of peers that they can socialize with and count on for support.”
“In the aging population, there are HIV-positive men who survived the epidemic, as well as long-term survivors who were never infected but who lost friends and huge parts of the community—basically, their family,” Briones adds. “The trauma that has resulted in both the negative and positive communities for this age group has driven people towards isolation, depression, and anxiety. So that has been the focus of the 50-Plus Network.”
“Share and Support” groups form the cornerstone of 50-Plus. These groups, organized on Meetup.com, are open to Bay Area gay, bisexual, and transgender men, HIV-positive or HIV-negative, who are age 50 or older. Co-facilitators Crisostomo and Briones, a licensed clinical psychotherapist, lead the group through discussions on a new topic of interest each week (e.g., housing, finances and income, identity, spirituality, sexuality). Discussions are structured around a “then and now” format; for example, exploring the meaning of sex then (in the past when group members were younger), compared to the meaning of sex now (as group members grow older).
“We’re honoring the sense that we’re older and wiser now. When we were younger, this is how we addressed this particular issue. Now that we’re older, this is how we’re addressing that same issue,” explains Briones.
“The group helps people find ways to connect with each other and move forward,” Briones adds, and promotes positive social and emotional growth and resiliency in long-term survivors.
“I’ve met a large number of other members who have become both acquaintances and close friends. Through the group process and associated activities, my outlook changed, my confidence and self-esteem greatly improved, my mood/mental health improved tremendously; and of equal significance my negative outlook about aging (mine and others) changed,” noted Mick Robinson.
One member, Kevin Bradley, explains that he likes “feeling comfortable in a safe environment, and having the opportunity to share about and offer support around a variety of topics that are of concern to myself and other men my age.” For him, being a part of the 50-Plus groups has been “a healing experience, eye opening, and very insightful and informative.”
In addition to groups, 50-Plus plans to implement another health and wellness program in the coming months. A wellness-coaching program is currently being developed so that group members can access one-on-one support in reaching physical, mental, or social health goals. This new program stems from a “wellness model” of health that focuses on promoting positive aspects of life such as resilience, coping, and hope instead of “fixing” pathologies.
Leiphart believes that this new part of 50-Plus will be well received because of its positive emphasis. And Briones sees this as the most exciting upcoming program in 50-Plus. “Having that one-on-one experience is really powerful in moving people forward.”
In order to scale up this program, the 50-Plus team will draw on the expertise and skill sets of peer volunteers. Men in the community (or who are already part of the 50-Plus group) with experience in counseling or peer support will have the opportunity to act as peer wellness coaches or wellness advocates after completing a training program.
50-Plus group members also invest in giving back to their communities through “Making a Difference” projects. Group members hosted the photo booth at the 2014 SFAF Big Gay 10K, actively participated in the June 5th National HIV/AIDS Long-Term Survivor’s Day, are helping to organize Shanti’s upcoming Honoring Our Experience retreat and are planning a volunteer event at the National AIDS Memorial Grove later this year. According to Crisostomo, activities like these are important in helping group members build connections amongst themselves but also to their community.
Last but not least, 50-Plus members get together for purely social activities such as concerts, dinners, Giants games, and theater performances. As the group has evolved and grown, Crisostomo has seen many friendships develop. He notes with pride the ownership that group members feel towards the group—with individual members stepping up to organize group events and opening their homes to the group.
“I’m very pleased that as the clients have come together over the year and a half of the program, they have a group of peers they can count on for support and socialization. For example, someone will decide to have a party and they have a built in guest list, and a built-in mechanism for socializing,” said Leiphart.
Michael Stokes, who has been a regular member of 50-Plus since February of 2013, feels grateful for the social support he’s received since joining the group. “What I like most about it is the camaraderie and meeting guys my own age. Even though I have friends, I still feel isolated in this world. This allows me to get out my house and out of my comfort zone—to mingle with other people like me who have the same issues and problems. It makes me feel not so isolated.”
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