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HIV/AIDS Health Project Informs, Challenges With Images of Older Lovers
posted 02.09.2015

By Holly Deni

There are some demographics about aging in the United States that the media loves to quote, and certain statistics are repeated again and again.

We can’t escape the fact that more than 10,000 people turn 65 each day in our country, a trend that will continue for the next 19 years. We are well-aware that there are more women living past age 80 than there are men. And we understand that, by the year 2030, the U.S. population will contain the largest cohort of elders that it will likely ever accommodate.

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But what happens when the statistic you need to report represents a challenge because it deals with a subject many in the media consider taboo? What if your story involves older people and sexuality?

That’s exactly the issue that ACRIA, a community-based HIV research and education organization, faced several years ago when they wanted to develop a campaign to educate Americans about HIV/AIDS and people older than 50. They knew that by the year 2015 half of adults with HIV in the United States would be older than age 50. They knew that one-sixth of new cases of HIV infection occur in people older than 50. And they knew that people older than 50 were six times less likely to use condoms and five times less likely to get tested for HIV infection than their younger counterparts.

That ACRIA decided to present these statistics in an unconventional way to attract controversy is a testament to their level of concern and commitment. The awareness campaign they developed is a rare example of printed media challenging accepted constructs about elders and sexuality. 

Through its Center on HIV and Aging, ACRIA developed a series of posters to educate the public about HIV risk in older adults. The “Age is Not a Condom” tagline was conceived by the Imaging Intimacy Project at the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art in London.

As part of this project, graphic designer Andy Chen worked with older adults of different ages and sexual orientations to design messages aimed at valuing and protecting their sexual health. The result was meant to be respectful and age-inclusive.

The 2014 “Age is Not a Condom” campaign created by ACRIA in collaboration with the Graying of AIDS, an independent, multi-platform documentary project, is likewise intended to present images that represent a wide spectrum of older people, including LGBT, straight and single individuals. To fulfill this goal, the project coordinators issued a casting call to New York City residents (no professional models were used), no matter their HIV status, who were willing to be photographed in poses that suggested sexually intimate activity.

The resulting posters represent mixed and same-race couples and gay and straight couples. Some were in relationships when the photos were taken; others were just posing together. Three images show a single individual. The posters were produced in Spanish as well as English. The common thread is their age—all appear to be older than 50.  And all of the participants look joyful, engaged and unashamed, plus, when interviewed prior to being selected for the project, the men and women expressed a desire to act as advocates for education, testing and changing behavior.

Public reaction to the campaign was positive, as partially documented in the blog that appears on the Graying of AIDS website. People who viewed the posters in bus shelters in New York City where they appeared found the images to be “arresting,” “provocative,” “necessary” and “very effective.” In at least one case, the poster spurred a frank conversation among co-workers about their parents’ sexuality and the need for continued vigilance around the issue of sexually transmitted disease.

ACRIA is now working on a website update that will allow other health and sexuality advocacy groups around the country to adapt these materials for use in their cities and towns. Those interested in exploring some of the images used in older campaigns can visit, click on “resources” and open the “social messaging” tab underneath. Their Facebook page, will also provide inspiration.

Aside from the persuasive and engaging message about the importance of HIV protection and testing for this age group, the “Age is Not a Condom” posters serve another powerful purpose. These images supply validation that elders, including LGBT elders, are sexual beings, and that sexual activity can be life-affirming and positive when conducted with forethought and care.

Holly Deni, M.Ed., is chair of ASA’s LAIN Editorial Committee. Working with a fee-only financial planner in New Jersey, she helps new retirees navigate the Social Security and Medicare mazes and assists seniors and their families with care planning issues. She is completing an advanced certificate program in Gerontology at Rutgers, and hopes to join ASA’s new Fundamentals of Gerontology class during the April session.

This article was brought to you by ASA’s LGBT Aging Issues Network

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