Until fairly recently in the HIV epidemic, there has been little awareness of the presence and impact of HIV/AIDS in the older population; this has been particularly true regarding women. Older women are often unable to disclose their HIV status due to stigma and fear, let alone share their innermost feelings about living as an HIV positive elder. Support groups are not readily available for older women, either those aging up with the virus or those newly diagnosed. In addition, social service and healthcare providers working with the older female population were not aware of the special needs this group of women have. Knowing that emotional support enhances the quality of life and reduces psychological stress for individuals living with HIV, Older Women Embracing Life was formed in 2005.
As older women who are infected with and/or affected by HIV, we understand the need to establish and maintain relationships with the target population. Relationships with older adults are crucial to the project’s success, as seniors and underserved populations are more likely to engage if they feel safe and have formed a bond of familiarity with the point of contact. In addition to this group of women over 50 years of age, OWEL involves young women, newly diagnosed or perinatally infected. Interaction between the generations creates meaningful opportunities for enhanced self-worth, growth and the learning that comes from shared experience.
In June 2004, the Johns Hopkins University AIDS Education and Training Center, in response to their recognition that older women in Baltimore living with the challenge of HIV lacked the comfort and companionship that support groups available for others could provide, invited a group of older women, all of whom were featured in a video called “Sisters Alive,” to an initial meeting. Interviews with senior women living with HIV were conducted to assess their needs. These women ultimately became the core group members. Members eventually invited other women to attend monthly meetings.
The first sessions were small in number; the number gradually grew to an average monthly attendance of 20-25 women. The group adopted the unique name, “OWEL,” pronounced, “oh-well.” This name, Older Women Embracing Life, describes how these experienced women view themselves as women living well in spite of an HIV/AIDS diagnosis.
Most of the women who are members of OWEL have been living with HIV for more than 15 years and are over the age of 50. Our members are representative of our target population: urban and suburban residents of Baltimore, MD and Washington, DC. Our Board of Directors is comprised of health care service providers, planners, social entrepreneurs, clergy and other representatives of faith-oriented organizations, community educators and health advocates, and academicians.
OWEL received 501(c)3 status in June 2010.