[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t’s no myth. Us oldsters do have carnal relations. We can bend, twist, turn, bump and grind just like any youngster, though the bends are not quite as deep and then there’s my trick knee that often bothers me…but I digress. Just because we’re past a certain age doesn’t mean we can’t scratch that itch now and then! Just ask Jane Fowler.
At forty-eight, after the dissolution of her twenty-four year marriage, she started dating again. Unfortunately, he was infected with HIV, and in 1991, Jane tested positive. Depression set in. After four years of semi-isolation, upon the advice of her only child, Stephen, she began to speak about the epidemic in churches, high schools, and community centers. This brave woman put a face to the HIV-over-fifty-set.
At one appearance, the Kansas City native wittingly bantered, “I decided to speak out and put an old, wrinkled, white, heterosexual face to this disease.” That’s mu kind of gal! In 1995, Jane and some friends founded the National Association on HIV Over Fifty (NAHOF), where she served as co-chairman of the board for five years. In 2002, she established HIV Wisdom for Older Woman (HIV WOW), which is primarily a program of prevention and support. It’s a one-woman organization with Jane reaching out to others through her speeches (she’s racked up over 1,500 speeches) and through one-on-one talks with those in need. She’s also a founding member of the national Positive Women’s Network.
Jane, an eighty-year-old grandmother of two, who could be Betty White’s sister, is a true revolutionary.
She’s not done yet! Jane hopes to fill her calendar with more speaking engagements to share her message.And people do listen. She’s appeared on CNN, PBS, and The Oprah Winfrey Show. Barbara Walters interviewed her on an episode of 20/20, and Good Housekeeping and People profiled her, as well.
Now it’s my turn.
Ruby Comer: It’s so nice to meet you, Jane. [She’s on the horn this afternoon from her home in Kansas City.] Why is HIV infecting older populations?
Jane Fowler: Because of the lack of information! There’s also a belief that at “this age” there’s nothing to fear. There’s a supposition that HIV is a disease of “them”—meaning the younger set, the promiscuous, and so on. Also, medical providers tend to ignore the fact that many older persons, despite myths and stereotypes, remain sexually active. And, elders are less likely to consistently use condoms during sex because of a generational mindset and unfamiliarity with HIV prevention methods.
Jane, do you think many doctors talk to their over-fifty patients about HIV?
Too many physicians and other health service providers are reluctant to even discuss or question matters of sex with this age group.
How can we reach out more to senior citizens? Ya know, I never liked that term. I prefer “Seasoned Citizens.” And we are!
One way would be for HIV educators to be more media-focused and savvy. Find ways to promote awareness and knowledge for the uneducated Seasoned Citizens through newspaper and magazine articles and radio and television reports. Establish a kind of speakers’ bureau in which volunteers would contact senior centers and retirement sites and ask to give educational programs for clients and residents.
Good deal. What advice would you give someone who’s newly diagnosed?
Immediately accept the fact of your virus. Waste no time in seeking medical and social services assistance. Study and learn about HIV and AIDS and understand that it’s no longer a death sentence. It’s now termed a chronic disease for those who are adherent to prescribed medications.
Also, you might look outside yourself and consider, if possible, making some kind of contribution to the cause. My coming out as positive and doing the work that I do, has been extremely liberating and gratifying for me. Perhaps it would be for you, too.
In a nutshell, when you speak about HIV, what do you say? I mean: What do you say to high school or college kids—and—what do you say if you are addressing seniors?
Essentially the same thing to both groups. I tell audiences that HIV, transmitted sexually or by sharing intravenous needles, does not discriminate, that it can infect anyone, regardless of age, race, sexual orientation, education, socio-economic status, religion, politics, etc. I remind everyone: you never know the sexual or drug history of anyone but yourself. Everyone is at the same risk. If one has unprotected sex, unless in a mutually monogamous relationship, or shares needles, one is at risk for contracting HIV. And it need not happen. Remember that this is a preventable disease, so be careful and cautious.
Say, when did you first hear about the epidemic?
In 1985 when Rock Hudson was dying of AIDS. Most of us thought then that AIDS was an epidemic only in the white gay population, so what did we heterosexuals have to fear?…Oh my, had I only known the truth! [She whispers in a low register.]
Have you lost anyone close to you from this disease?
No, fortunately….[She stops abruptly.] Wait. The man who infected me died. Sometime following my diagnosis in 1991, I phoned to tell him about my situation, as we were no longer seeing each other. He chose to do nothing about his infection.
Oy! [There’s a short silence.] On the lighter side, I want to know what’s your favorite film of all time?
[She responds swiftly.] Lawrence of Arabia. It came out in 1962, a biopic about British officer T. E. Lawrence, directed by David Lean and starring Peter O’Toole. It was a magnificent, memorable cinema experience. I drove up to Chicago so I could see it, since it was several weeks away from opening in Kansas City!
You sly dog you! Oh, the movie is one of my faves too. So at sixty, Jane, HIV profoundly changed your course in life. It transformed you from a professional journalist into a media interviewee, from private person into a public activist.
Yes indeed, Ruby! I traded my typewriter for a microphone and embarked on a career as a prevention educator, speaking in thirty states, from New York to California, Minnesota to Texas and on foreign lands in South Africa, Switzerland, France, and Canada.
Your son, Stephen, must be very proud of you. You certainly are a role model, Ms. Fowler. Whom do you look up to?
I don’t consider myself a role model [she states sincerely, her voice indicating “why would I think that?”], and you’d have to ask my son if he’s proud of me. But, interestingly, it is my son who I look upon with gratitude and appreciation for the manner in which he has supported me. He was the first person I told about what had happened to me, and there’s never been any hint of disgust or disappointment. In fact, before protease inhibitors were introduced and my T cells began to fall, he knew I was worried. He volunteered to leave his home in San Francisco and return temporarily to Kansas City if necessary. But that did not need to happen, for which I was thankful.
Who are your heroes in the epidemic, my dear?
For me, there’s not one hero but a band of them. The non-infected individuals who have chosen to work in the HIV and AIDS field, like medical personnel, social workers, administrators, and volunteers. They all have dedicated their lives to saving lives, with an end goal of helping to eliminate the epidemic.
For more information about speaking engagements, please contact Jane Fowler by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at (816) 421-5263.
Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected].