Researchers focused on how social support networks can reduce stress, anxiety and depression for this population and how stigma and fragmented relationships can result in negative health outcomes 

Having social support and strong social networks is vital to the health and well-being of older adults living with HIV, according to a Rutgers Health study.

Published in AIDS Care and led by Kristen Krause, an instructor at the Rutgers School of Public Health, the study examined the social connections of older people living with HIV in Newark, N.J. – a region frequently overlooked in research focusing on this demographic.

“This study helps us understand how support networks affect older adults living with HIV and how stigma and fragmented relationships can ultimately make way for negative health outcomes,” said Krause, adding that many studies focus on other large urban areas, such as New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

With over 1.2 million people living with HIV in the United States, advances in medical technology have extended their lifespans, challenging the perception of HIV as primarily affecting young individuals. Half of those living with the virus in the United States are at least 50 years old, emphasizing the importance of understanding social support dynamics for this population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Older people living with HIV often face stigma related to both their HIV status and age, which can impact their mental health and increase social isolation. Support from various sources such as community organizations, family and healthcare workers is crucial in mitigating these challenges, providing avenues for connection and motivation for self-care.

Studies have shown social support not only buffers against stigma but also reduces stress, anxiety, and depression levels among older people living with HIV.

“Social support is a key component of resilience and overcoming challenging obstacles that older adults living with HIV may face,” said Krause. “Social support can come in many forms, such as friendships, family relationships and support groups. They all serve unique and collective purposes to ensure good health outcomes in older people living with HIV.”

Researchers recruited 40 participants ages 51 to 69 through varied sampling methods within the Newark metropolitan area, including drag shows, pride events and medical facilities. Data collection involved semi-structured interviews covering topics such as participants’ personal experiences with HIV, social networks and mental health.

From the gathered data, four main themes emerged regarding participants’ experiences living with HIV as older individuals: friends and relationships, support groups, stigma and discrimination, and family, all of which highlighted the recurring role of social support.

Study findings underscore the need for older adults living with HIV to cultivate strong support systems, especially in understudied areas such as Newark. The absence of such networks correlated with a range of difficulties among participants as they age, such as heightened substance use, depressive episodes, anxiety, homelessness and adverse health consequences.

“It is important for researchers and public health practitioners to work together to develop programs that can help facilitate consistent and affirming interactions for older adults living with HIV,” said Krause. “This will help so many people improve their overall quality of life and support positive health outcomes."

Looking ahead, Krause said there is a necessity for further research tailored to this population, advocating for increased funding and the development of interventions and programs that foster social support through reliable and positive experiences, since not all older adults living with HIV have easy access to such support and resources.

Study co-authors include researchers from the Center for Health, Identity, Behavior and Prevention Studies within the Rutgers School of Public Health.