When Ed Shaw tested positive for HIV at age 47, it felt like a death sentence. It was 1988, and only one medication existed to combat the virus that causes AIDS.
"If you were diagnosed, you didn't have long to live," says Shaw, who sank into despair, resorting to drug and alcohol abuse. "I just went off on the deep end."
The audience of older adults listened intently during a role-play between a heterosexual couple in condom negotiations. Their dialogue drove home how important it is to be safe rather than sorry.
Aside from hospital presentations, Shaw coordinates a monthly meeting of the New York Association on HIV Over 50. It's held at Gay Men's Health Crisis, a Manhattan-based service organization. The event is open to anyone regardless of sexual orientation or age.
"He's so dedicated to this cause," says Mary Ann Malone, who serves on the association's board and works as a case manager at Mount Sinai Hospital's HIV clinic in New York. And he's "always trying to motivate all of us to keep on top of things." Meanwhile, the suspenders-wearing activist finds time for recreation, she adds, citing his passion for chess. "He knows how to balance his life well."
Senior centers, churches and other community groups welcome Shaw. Whereas the topic of HIV/AIDS used to be taboo in religious circles, some houses of worship have formed ministries to cope with the crisis. Many adults living with the virus feel ostracized and isolated.
To them, Shaw is a symbol of inspiration and hope. And to others, his HIV prevention message resonates loud and clear. He believes changing attitudes and behaviors takes an intergenerational approach.
"Not only should we reach seniors," Shaw explains, "but I think it's important that the family composition be brought into play. There should be dialogue with the family — from the grandparents to grandchildren."
Susan Kreimer is a writer in New York.