Every day, 1 million Americans, 70 percent of them women, attend one of the country’s 11,000 senior centers. With a median age of 76, they are largely low-income Caucasians who visit the centers one to three times a week, for an average of three-and-a-half hours per visit. They typically attend an exercise or educational class, eat lunch in a congenial enviroment, then return home to a network of family and friends.
For lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender seniors, however, this description does not fit. In a survey of Area Agencies on Aging
, 46 percent of respondents said that open members of the LGBT community would be unwelcome at senior centers in their area. And LGBT seniors themselves describe their safety net as stretched thin. They are twice as likely as their heterosexual peers to live alone, without a significant other or close relative to call for help.
To counter this isolation, several organizations have pioneered programs with a welcoming culture for LGBT seniors. New York–based Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Elders
, or SAGE, recently opened a full-time senior center in Manhattan, with plans for satellite centers in each of the city’s five boroughs by this summer. Tom Weber, SAGE’s director of community services, explains that LGBT elders grew up “when it wasn’t OK to be gay or lesbian.” As a result, he says, they “wouldn’t feel comfortable in a traditional center. They carry wounds from people who wanted them to change and wouldn’t feel safe to be themselves in that environment.”
Responding to surveys of LGBT seniors, SAGE has replaced the typical senior center lunch with a two-dollar dinner, which appeals to those who still work during the day and, more generally, provides opportunities for socializing in the evening. The center also offers support groups, like one for men who lost friends and partners to the AIDS epidemic; an employment assistance program that includes job-search training; and case management for the complex and daunting tasks of handling health issues in a system that can be insensitive or hostile to gay patients and their partners. And there’s fun: a choreographer-in-residence engaging the seniors in modern and jazz dance; exercise classes; gay politics discussion groups; day trips; and dating advice.
“We have everything a mainstream senior center has in a safe, culturally sensitive environment where LGBT elders are not the minority and have the space to be themselves,” Weber says.
Like SAGE, the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center
presents a full range of programs for LGBT elders, though the center's mission isn't limited to seniors. Among its core offerings are caregiver support, separate men’s and women’s groups focused on grief and loss, lunches, dinners, dances, movies, bingo, book clubs, an on-site pharmacy, and sports challenges including weekly bike rides. Beyond that, there are specialized programs, like an outreach to Latinas as young as 50, many of whom are outcasts from their Catholic families; spirituality discussion groups for women; and men’s dinner and movie nights.
Many miles from the relatively tolerant East and West coasts, Cathy Grimm, director of the Denver-based Jewish Family Service of Colorado Senior Solutions, has set out to heighten sensitivity toward gay seniors, but she faces a tougher environment. Denver’s LGBT elders, who are concentrated in the Capitol Hill neighborhood near the city’s central business district, have access to services but no center of their own. “Colorado recognizes neither gay civil unions nor gay marriage, so many older gays are still in the closet, fearful of being attacked even for holding hands in public,” Grimm says.
To raise awareness, the Boulder Agency on Aging in 2004 established a training program aimed at senior service providers. At its center is Project Visibility
, an award-winning film in which the area’s LGBT residents movingly recount their struggles.
The Jewish Family Service of Colorado Senior Solutions also has a number of LGBT outreach programs. Developed with input from SAGE, they include case management, Ryan White–financed housecleaning for older people with HIV/AIDS, coffee hours and cultural outings, as well as health fairs, HIV/STD screening, and monthly medication reviews by a pharmacologist.
Not every LGBT elder wants a senior center of any kind, however. Miami-based David Leddick, the 82-year-old author of How to Hit 70 Doing 100,
views these centers as important gateways to services, but says they’re not for him. “This is the 21st century and senior centers are getting more sophisticated, but they have a long way to go,” says Leddick, a former ballet dancer and gay activist with a 28-year-old partner.
Although Leddick recognizes the value of places that serve older members of the LGBT community, he favors senior centers that are open to everyone. After all, he says, LGBT elders “do not live in a world of their own.”
And he’d like to see more innovative programs everywhere. “Senior centers should have great meals with fantastic desserts, lectures, cabaret shows, makeovers, anything that energizes the emotions,” he says, adding, “There should also be mental health counseling to help seniors avoid isolation and depression.”
But the centers may have to offer even more than that to attract Leddick. The senior years make up "a third of my life,” he says, “and I won’t waste it on boring things.”
By Marlene Piturro, Ph.D.
Marlene Piturro has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and an MBA in organizational development. In addition to her private practice focused on career and retirement issues of older adults, Piturro has consulted on the issues of aging for such companies as Pfizer, Pharmacia, the Leapfrog Group and Oxford Health Plans. As a journalist, she has written about senior health issues for The Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune Washington Post and USA Today. In 2010 her husband, percussionist Howard Van Hyning, died after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease.
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