Staying healthy as you age with HIV

2016-11-30 06:00

Mpho Lekgetho, an HIV-positive mother of two from the John Taolo Gae­tsewe District in the Northern Cape, continues to share her story with ­Express Northern Cape, especially with World Aids Day approaching. The article is also aimed at motivating those who think HIV is a death sentence.

Today people living with HIV and receiving treatment can expect a normal lifespan, something that many of us could not imagine living to see.

With the focus now on maximising longevity and quality of life, growing old and navigating all that the ageing process entails is now a reality for many HIV-positive people.

Also, due to the way HIV was introduced to us, many of us lost hope from the onset and that is why we lost many of our loved ones.

All I can say is that living positively and longer with HIV is a personal choice.

I remember how my family were concerned about how they would bury me should I die. Everybody was asking for my ID book so that they could put my name on their funeral insurance. As I grew older, living longer and becoming healthier, some had become concerned that they were actually paying for nothing.

I remember one of them asking me to take the policy and to start paying myself. I told her I was not going to die soon – I have a responsibility to raise my two boys and to help society to understand what HIV is all about.

I must say, all the people who went out positively, disclosing their HIV positive status, have actually set the pace for us and through their hard work we are also learning how to live positively and grow despite our HIV-positive status.

Reading stories about people living with HIV have also played a major role in my life.

I am in my early 40s and I know for a fact that some of the people who were diagnosed at the same time as I was, have died. I must say the decision I had taken was indeed helpful.

I had never dreamt of leaving my kids behind, nor leaving them in this world stranded and vulnerable, or to leave my mother with the responsibility of taking care of my kids when I die.

Today I have raised a 20 year old and a 15 year old and I still believe I will see them grow older and become independent while I am still alive.

Right choices

The question is, am I doing the right things? Am I taking good care of my life, am I exercising enough, do I eat well, am I buying the right food, am I sleeping or resting enough? How is my sex life? Am I adhering to protection and avoiding cross infection? Do I still use a condom for prevention? Am I not tired of taking ARVs? Do I know what to do when I am experiencing other health problems? Do I still go to my doctor for check-ups even though I am not sick? How am I handling my stress? Do I drink alcohol and am I empowering myself with information that is related to my age and ageing? Am I taking my medicines correctly and do I go for counselling when necessary? Do I drink enough water and do I keep my brain functional? Is my life well-balanced?

If some of the questions mentioned above are not answered, then living longer with HIV might be a dream.

Challenges of age

Research has shown that little is understood about the long-term effects of the ARV drugs on women psychologically or physically, as well as the emotional effects of ageing specific to women living with HIV.

In addition to the health issues experienced by the ageing population as a whole, women living with HIV face some specific challenges as they age.

People living with HIV as they age also have to take other medications which may alter the metabolic action of some drugs, such as hormone replacement therapy. The question is: Are we all informed about all these drug interaction processes?

Older women often have a dual role of caring for their own health while also caring for their children, grandchildren or elderly parents and they are more likely to have issues around disclosure to their children.

Many of us may have delayed starting a family due to lack of information around prevention of mother-to-child transmission and fear associated with HIV, only to find subsequent complications affecting parenthood due to the early onset of menopause.

We therefore need support, from our family and from society.

The feeling of stigma and isolation are still common among ageing women living with HIV and information available to women with HIV is limited with regard to what is due to the disease and what is due to the normal ageing process.

I took part in one of the sessions during the 2016 Aids Conference on ageing with HIV and I have learnt that ageing with HIV is one of the topics not touched upon in information disseminated about HIV. The truth is, however, that if we do the right things now, we will end up tomorrow as senior citizens of this world still living with HIV, because it looks like it is going take years for a cure to be found.

Support groups are still relevant. Although it sounds old-fashioned, boring and stigmatising, the truth is they still remain a platform to learn and adopt from other people experiencing the same challenges, enabling one to move forward positively with one’s life.

With appropriate interventions, lifestyle choices and integrated support from the health care professionals and community groups, the impact of these challenges can be effectively managed.

The journey with HIV

The journey with HIV is not different from other illnesses, except for the fact that it is a journey that is stigmatised. It tends to be difficult if we are not emotionally empowered, therefore the role of the psychologists or counsellors in our lives can play an important role.

Age is the most unexpected of all that happens to a person and it is funny, because when we are children, we all dream of growing older, because our thinking at that stage tells us that when one is grown-up, everything will be possible. But as we age, we wish we never had to grow up, because growing up comes with responsibilities.

The fact that the life expectancy of a person living with HIV who is on treatment can be the same or even longer than a person who is HIV negative, must move us to start addressing ageing and HIV and how we can get people on treatment.

As we age, we we are more likely to face memory loss, heart disease, too many pills, frailty, bone health, lung disease, kidney disease, sexual health issues, neuropathy and menopause, among others. Are we empowered? Do we know how we can manage these successfully?

For some unknown reason, people are more likely to be in denial and don’t feel comfortable to talk about all this, even to their doctors.

Sexual health

Sexual functions change as people age. This happens to everyone, including people living with HIV and can cause a strain on their sexual life and their sex life can become more difficult.

Other age-related sicknesses can also limit your sexual activity, for example arthritis can make it difficult to get into sexual positions and sex could become boring if it is not talked about in a relationship.

People often assume that older people do not have sex at all, or are maybe reluctant to talk about sex and safer sex. My advice is don’t wait for your doctor to ask. Talk frankly about your sexual life and any concerns you might have, because if you want to stay healthy and maintain a satisfying sex life, you can address it before it becomes a problem.

Remember that some medication can dampen your sexual desire or response, so speaking to a specialist can be very important.

But because talking about sex and sexuality is still taboo, opening up becomes a problem, bringing about stress-related sicknesses that can destroy one’s well-being.


The early onset of menopause (before 46) is also associated with an increased risk of disease and may be linked to increased mortality.

Symptoms associated with menopause, such as hot flushes, fatigue and insomnia, can also be associated with HIV, so women living with HIV need to monitor these changes in consultation with their health professionals.

Drug interaction

Women tend to have complications with drug interactions between ARVs and hormone replacement therapy (HRT), which is normally prescribed for the relief of symptoms of menopause. That is why disclosing the correct age during consultation is very important.

Living with HIV and being a woman can be stressful. I would therefore like to thank the brave women who are or have been making it their business to set the tone for the coming generations, for people living with HIV and for networks and support groups.

Organisations have indeed played a role in our lives and we would like to grow healthier while living with HIV and to set the pace for the coming generation.

Planning in advance

In many cases, we fail to plan and prepare for a healthier old age.

Of course it is impossible to predict the future, but it is possible to plan for a healthier old age, as we all want to die peacefully and gracefully.

Spiritual life

This normally comes as the last option, although it is an important tool in our lives. Whether we like it or not, we need God in our lives

The truth is failure to build the relationship with God at an early age can be stressful when you age, because as we age, we become worried about so many things and become regretful of the things we did not do while we were still young.

Having a good time meditating as you age may come naturally. But if you didn’t practice it at an early age, it could be very difficult, because your mind may be preoccupied with other things when you need your time alone with God.

Being around sick people

As we age, our immune system automatically weakens and that is why we need to start taking care of ourselves.

We must take extra care when around sick people and especially those who are coughing and wash our hands more often. Washing hands has been proven as the best infection control. Health professionals will always encourage this.

As I write this piece, I am thinking of seeing myself ageing peacefully and I would like to share this with my colleagues, friends and family and also to thank them for the support they have given so that I could be able to live positively.

Although I cannot deny that I have challenges in my life, I have learnt to manage my situations professionally and I do not allow anyone or anything to destroy my journey as I age.

I want to live, inspire and become the change agent and all this will only be possible if I stick to doing things the right way.

... it is impossible to predict the future, but it is possible to plan for a healthier old age, as we all want to die peacefully and gracefully.


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