Aging with AIDS: The Bitter Irony of Living with a Disease

Scientific research has brought wonders and astonishing changes to human life, especially in the field of medicine.

However, despite years of extensive development and experimentation, some medical conditions still remain incurable. One of those is HIV/AIDS.

Some figures say that as of 2011, approximately 1.1 million people in the United States are HIV positive, and 600,000 more have died during the decades of the HIV pandemic. Medical experts say that the life expectancy of people who are HIV-positive but are not diagnosed with full-blown AIDS have risen significantly from 10 years in 1996 to an average of 22.5 years in 2005.

Aging with AIDS, however, has proved to be not as perfect as it seemed to several survivors.  While the life expectancy of people who are being treated for AIDS and HIV have been impressively and steadily increasing over recent years, AIDS treatment expert Anthony Fauci says that many common diseases of old age “tend to occur with a greater frequency in people who have been HIV infected for a long period of time.” Among these diseases are heart disease, cancer, and kidney problems. And it is also worth noting that these diseases are not cheap ones—the medications and treatments they require often come at lofty prices.

One of the biggest issues AIDS patients have to constantly deal with is depression. This comes not only from the personal pain they have to battle with, but also from the experience of losing other loved ones and friends from the same disease. The story of renowned AIDS activist and speaker Bill Rydwels is a good example. Rydwels was diagnosed as HIV positive in 1985 and in the same year, his long-time partner Franco Prieto died of AIDS. As of 2011, at the age of 78, Rydwels was still alive. He says he didn’t expect to live that long, but those years following Prieto’s death are not his happiest either. He had been previously diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma and was taking regular medications for high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and high cholesterol. Incidentally, Ron Swanda, another HIV-positive activist, shares more or less the same experiences and sentiments as Rydwels, and research has proven that depression and stigma are two of the biggest problems that most AIDS patients have to face. In fact, a doctor that handles patients suffering from AIDS also shares that for one of his patients, the grief had become so heavy that by the time he was 50, the patient was asking “Why am I here? This isn’t what I planned for”.

One quote from Rydwels that really stuck to me is this:

“You didn’t live with AIDS, you died with AIDS.”

Reading and hearing about the persistent struggles of those who have aged with AIDS teaches us that at the end of the day, mere survival doesn’t guarantee happiness. People like Rydwels and and Swanda may have lived past their and their doctors’ expectations, but the irony is that it’s simply not how they used to live anymore. Friends and loved ones have gone, they have to depend on copious amounts of medication, and continue to suffer from not just one, but several different health complications that are not even part of the main disease.

Perhaps the best lesson we can learn from this is that yes, medical advancement has made AIDS and HIV less virulent (or fatal, if you may), but it doesn’t make it less agonizing. And that at the end of the day, cliché as it may sound, prevention is still far better than cure. So does prolonged life expectancy for HIV-positive patients mean that people should embrace promiscuity and forget about the fear of AIDS? No. If these stories of survival can teach us anything, it is that life (in the earthly sense), is fleeting and temporary; and that

while medical treatments can momentarily deal with our misfortunes, they still can’t account for the heavier consequences of our actions.

The best part is that the process of healing goes way beyond the realm of the physical. As the stories of these long-standing HIV patients have showed us, more that physical healing, what they really need is to know that there is still someone who cares, and that despite the apparent nearness of death, life is still worth living. If you are dealing with depression stemming from an incurable disease, or if you know someone who is going through a similar struggle, you may get in touch with World Vision Philippines’ Channels of Hope.


Post by Jessamine Pacis, TLW volunteer. Jessamine is a writer, soon-to-be law student, and forgiven child of God. A proud INFP, she can usually be found daydreaming or consuming copious amounts of cereal at any time of the day. She prattles about random musings and her imperfect (yet beautiful) journey with Christ at