by Alina Oswald
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]sk anybody over a certain age, and they’ll tell you that getting old is not easy, especially when living in a society that glorifies youth, beauty, and perfection. When it comes to HIV and AIDS, the youth almost often steal the spotlight, while the aging population is not always mentioned. This happens even as individuals turning fifty or older this year count for half of more than a million people in the U.S. living with HIV.
That’s about to change. Aging, and in particular aging while living with HIV, can become hip again, in part because of a new Walgreens Well Beyond HIV campaign and related traveling exhibition curated in collaboration with The Graying of AIDS, a project originally produced as a photo and multimedia essay for Time Magazine in 2006, by photographer Katja Heinemann. Designed to eradicate stigma associated with the disease by initiating an honest dialog and sharing success stories of long-term HIV/AIDS survivors, Well Beyond HIV features individuals who have proved that it is, indeed, possible to gray, gracefully, while living with the virus. These individuals don’t see age as a deficit, but rather as a confirmation of their survival and triumph over the disease. They are not only long-term HIV/AIDS survivors, but also Walgreens customers.
“Older adults are not a part of our collective consciousness as far as the epidemic in the United States is concerned,” explains Katja Heinemann, Project Co-Director and Video Journalist of The Graying of AIDS. “The faces in the Graying of AIDS project—and now the Well Beyond HIV campaign—allow us to visualize more powerfully than statistics, what the next phase of the HIV/AIDS epidemic might look like.”
Using the Well Beyond HIV campaign as a template, Walgreens is already at work, writing the first paragraphs in this next chapter of the pandemic, offering a glimpse into the reality of living long, full lives, while living with HIV. The traveling exhibit launched in Miami, Florida, in January 2015, and stands at the core of this campaign, offering photographs and videos and insightful testimonials of older adults from the Miami area, who volunteered to share their compelling stories.
“Our work with The Graying of AIDS was a natural collaboration,” says Markeisha Marshall, Corporate Communications at Walgreens, sharing the behind-the-scenes story of the campaign, and the exhibit. “We were very appreciated of the work they were already doing.”
When looking at Well Beyond HIV, what stands out is its…realness. The stories touch a chord with many people. The exhibit organically captures individuals telling their stories in their own words. In that sense, Well Beyond HIV offers a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of image of the graying epidemic—honest emotions and heartfelt stories that highlight the victories, and also struggles associated with living with HIV/AIDS. “What you see in those videos [and photographs] are real smiles and real reactions,” Marshall says. “We wanted to capture who they are, the real expression of people feeling positive and hopeful for the progress that they’ve made.”
As I find out from Glen Pietrandoni, Senior Director of Virology at Walgreens, the stories highlighted in Well Beyond HIV campaign and exhibit offer only a glimpse into the participants’ lives, a snippet of the long journeys these individuals have taken through HIV/AIDS and life, in general. And Pietrandoni is quite familiar with their journeys. He started out as a pharmacist in 1979, only a couple of years before the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, serving patients before the pandemic had a name, and long before there were any medications available on the market. His career with Walgreens started in 1990. A few years later, between 1996 and 2003, he managed a Walgreens pharmacy at the Howard Brown Health Center, the first to specialize in HIV and AIDS. In 2008, Pietrandoni earned his American Academy of HIV Medicine (AAHIVP) credentials, and, today, he remains committed to helping HIV patients in many ways, including serving on the board of directors for AIDS United and ADAP Advocacy Association. He’s been with Walgreens for twenty-five years and counting.
“At Walgreens, we’ve been involved in the HIV space since the beginning,” Pietrandoni explains. “Today we serve 150,000 unique people living with HIV. And because we’ve known a lot of these patients for such a long period of time, and now, as we know, they are living longer and living well with HIV, we want to take this opportunity to honor them [in Well Beyond HIV], and highlight their journeys, and the relationships we’ve had with them for all these years.”
Maybe many may not necessarily associate Walgreens with HIV/AIDS care, but the fact is that Walgreens has been helping patients since the very beginning of the epidemic. Today, there are over 2,000 pharmacists trained specifically in HIV/AIDS, in nearly eight hundred locations across the country, mostly in stores located in areas of high HIV incidence. They build relationships in local communities, with providers, service organizations, and, of course, the patients, themselves. These pharmacists are trained to be culturally confident and clinically smart about the disease, and help any HIV patients—from the newly diagnosed, to those living with the virus for decades, and also to the new group of individuals, interested in using HIV medications to prevent infections. “A newly diagnosed [individual] needs a lot more information and handholding versus somebody that’s maybe been living with HIV for twenty years, and has been managing well, and may have questions about multiple medications [or new drugs,]” Pietrandoni comments.
He adds that, as people are living longer, they also have medication needs, aside from HIV. With age, many health problems may occur, anything from diabetes and high cholesterol to heart disease and mental health issues. Hence, those living longer while living with HIV/AIDS may experience more complex medical conditions. Walgreens pharmacies are perfectly suited to help these patients.
“A pharmacist is a very valuable person to everybody, but especially to people over fifty, living with HIV,” Pietrandoni says. “As people are getting older and living with HIV, [needing to take multiple medications] getting to know your pharmacist and having your pharmacist help through that journey as a valuable person to the community is sometimes overlooked, but the pharmacist can be that person who’s very easily accessible.” Sometimes, pharmacists can be reached around the clock, in many of the Walgreens stores that stay open 24/7, seven days a week. Pharmacists are also able to look at the patient’s entire profile, and answer questions not only related to HIV medications, but also other medications, as well as over the counter drugs. In addition, a pharmacist can provide not only medical advice, but also a more holistic view of an individual’s health and well-being.
There are different ways to get in touch with a Walgreens pharmacist specialized in HIV/AIDS. One option is to visit the HIVWalgreens.com website, which lists store locations and pharmacists who can be found at those locations. Patients can call and ask for a specific pharmacist by name, and get the answers to all the sensitive questions that some may be weary to ask in a public place. Walgreens can also have the medications delivered at home. In some stores, there are private rooms that HIV patients can use to discuss their medications with a pharmacist. “We had people tell us that they like the drive-thru situation,” Pietrandoni mentions, “again, recognizing that [that’s possible.] But [in general] we try to give options to people, and [also] comfort in the way they get their medications.”
“This is exactly why this program, this initiative, is so important,” Marshall adds. “Our goal is to eradicate the stigma, to have people tell their stories, and to engage people in conversations. While our pharmacists are highly trained to deal with these situations, we do know that there is a real stigma concern out there, and we think that, having other people tell their stories, might empower others to [do the same].”
The exhibit is a traveling exhibit. Next stop will be San Francisco, and details about it will be posted on-line, soon. Since the exhibit lives online, the goal of the Well Beyond HIV campaign is also to engage online participation and conversations. “We really want to see people engaged. Read and share the stories,” Marshall encourages. “The heart of the campaign is the featured stories and this exhibit.”
We can learn a lot from people who are aging while living with HIV/AIDS. Their stories provide advice not only on how to age well, while living with the virus, but how to deal with an aging epidemic, and maybe new, related challenges.
“Aging with HIV/AIDS is a complex problem,” Naomi Schegloff, MPH, Graying of AIDS Project Co-Director and Health Educator says, “but it really is a beautiful problem to have: it is such a gift that we have so many long-term survivors still with us!”
For more about The Graying of AIDS, check out www.grayingofaids.org.
Alina Oswald, Arts Editor of A&U, is a writer, photographer, and the author of Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography of AIDS. Contact her at www.alinaoswald.com.