Understanding HIV-related stigma in older age in rural Malawi

Emily Freeman (2016)

Social Science and Medicine 164 35-43




The combination of HIV- and age-related stigma exacerbates prevalence of HIV infection and late diagnosis and initiation of anti-retroviral therapy among older populations (Heckman et al. 2002; Moore, 2012; Richards et al. 2013). Interventions to address these stigmas must be grounded in understanding of situated systems of beliefs about illness and older age. This study analyses constructions of HIV and older age that underpinned the stigmatisation of older adults with HIV in rural Balaka, Malawi. It draws on data from a series of in-depth interviews (N = 135) with adults aged 50–?90 (N = 43) in 2008–2010. Around 40% (n = 18) of the sample had HIV.

Dominant understandings of HIV in Balaka pertained to the sexual transmission of the virus and poor prognosis of those infected. They intersected with understandings of ageing. Narratives about older age and HIV in older age both centred on the importance of having bodily, moral and social power to perform broadly-defined “work”. Those who could not work were physically and socially excluded from the social world. This status, labelled as “child-like”, was feared by all participants.

In participants' narratives, growing old involves a gradual decline in the power required to produce one's membership of the social world through work. HIV infection in old age is understood to accelerate this decline. Understandings of the sexual transmission of HIV, in older age, imply the absence of moral power and in turn, loss of social power. The prognosis of those with HIV, in older age, reflects and causes amplified loss of bodily power. In generating dependency, this loss of bodily power infantilises older care recipients and jeopardises their family's survival, resulting in further loss of social power. This age-and HIV-related loss of power to produce social membership through work is the discrediting attribute at the heart of the stigmatisation of older people with HIV.