Silver and Lavender

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As LGBT people age, “their social network starts diminishing. Many of them go back into the closet.”
As they age by the millions, LGBT seniors face a host of challenges.

BY MIKE ALBO

IN NOVEMBER, RESIDENTS OF THE FOUNTAINGROVE LODGE IN SANTA ROSA, CALIFORNIA, the nation’s fi rst LGBT retirement community, returned to their homes after the devastating October wildfires there. Part of Oakmont Senior Living, a luxury retirement complex, Fountaingrove’s lodge and apartments were spared by the inferno—only the rainbow flags at the entrance were singed—but even before the fi res, the 95 residents knew how lucky they were. They had a welcoming place to grow old. For most LGBT seniors, the landscape outside of Fountaingrove is threatening enough.

The massive wave of Baby Boomers who are heading into retirement has been coined the “Silver Tsunami.” Rarely addressed is that this tsunami contains a very lavender wave. According to a 2014 study by SAGE, the advocacy group for LGBT seniors, there are at least 3 million LGBT people over 55 in the United States, a number they say will double in 20 years. “This country isn’t ready for how fast it’s aging,” says Michael Adams, CEO of SAGE. “And the services and programs and housing that exist are not ready for LGBT people.”

HOME ALONE

There is a myth that all LGBT people are comfortably in the uppermiddle class, with well-appointed second homes. In fact, older LGBT people are more likely to be poor than their straight, cisgender counterparts. Nearly one-third of LGBT older adults ages 65 and older live at or below the federal poverty level, compared to a quarter of straight seniors. In SAGE’s study, 51 percent of older LGBT people reported being “very or extremely concerned about their financial futures.” Affording a luxury retirement community isn’t always an option. And LGBT older adults face a layered and complex series of obstacles—discrimination, health challenges, isolation.

Traditional caregiving is also less common. While more than 75 percent of caregiving is done by spouses or blood relatives, according to a 2011 study by UnitedHealthCare, older LGBT people are much less likely to have spousal support or adult children. Apart from the psychological impact of that isolation, there are practical issues: often we simply don’t have someone who can drive us to medical appointments or help decode complex health insurance documents.

Chicago resident Don Bell moved into that city’s LGBT-friendly living center, Town Hall, three years ago. “If I had not been able to live here, I literally would be homeless,” he says.

For activists and social workers in the field, the isolation of older LGBT people is obvious. “Particularly as they’re aging, their social network starts diminishing,” says Jose Collazo, site manager for SAGE’s Bronx satellite. “Many of them go back into the closet. Their fate is the hands of their doctors, home aids, family and friends.”

FINDING A HOUSE THAT’S A HOME

Their relative social isolation means that LGBT people are more likely to rely on professional care like assisted living and nursing homes. But LGBT seniors can face daunting levels of prejudice. In a 2014 study, the Equal Rights Center found that 48 percent of same-sex couples who applied for senior housing experienced “adverse or differential treatment,” ranging from being quoted higher rent prices to outright denial of availability.

Even if LGBT elders can access appropriate housing, personnel there are all too often poorly equipped to work with them. “It has never dawned on far too many staff of senior living communities that they have LGBT residents,” says Karen Loewy, counsel and strategist on seniors’ issues at Lambda Legal.

Marsha Wetzel, a lesbian senior who used to live at the Glen St. Andrew Living Community in Niles, Illinois, suffered harassment, discrimination and violence caused by other residents, she says. She reported enduring a relentless pattern of homophobic and sexist slurs, being spit on, and getting hit over the head from behind after hearing the word “homo.” After complaining to the staff to no avail, she called Lambda Legal’s Help Desk. Lambda Legal filed suit against Glen St. Andrew Living Community last year.

“When we take on a case we know full well it represents one case among hundreds of instances,” says Loewy. “Between the lack of cultural competency and generational or religious anti-LGBT bias among both staff and residents, there is a lot of work to be done to ensure LGBT seniors can live safely and equally in these settings.”

Some exciting new LGBT-friendly senior living facilities have opened in the last few years, including the John C. Anderson apartments in Philadelphia, The Openhouse’s Bob Ross LGBT Senior Center in San Francisco and Town Hall in Chicago. The Anita May Rosenstein Campus, a part of the Los Angeles LGBT center, is set to open in 2019 as an example of building community by bringing generations together. The new campus will include both affordable housing for seniors and beds for homeless youth, with a kitchen to feed both.

“The need is immense,” says Karyn Skultety, executive director of San Francisco’s Openhouse. “When the Openhouse community facility opened last year, there was just a seven-day window for applications. 1,800 people applied, and 50 were placed in 40 units. Fifty people are thrilled, and we have built a strong LGBT community, but hundreds are heartbroken and fearful of where they will go next.”

While these spaces are welcome, they only begin to address the problem. “We’re happy to see the momentum, but we’d never be able to build enough units,” says Kelly Kent, SAGE’s National Housing Initiative Director. “We need to focus on mainstream providers that already exist, so their staff can provide culturally competent care in traditional settings.”

THE OLDER BODY

For LGBT people, access to health care is crucial. LGBT people are more likely than others to have health problems like HIV, depression, substance abuse, and struggles with obesity. “Minorities manifest stress,” says Jeff Huyett, who has worked as a nurse, nurse practitioner and activist since 1983. “Statistically we are at higher risk, dealing with consequences of living with stigma, the violence of being LGBT in this culture. It impacts your eating, your drinking habits, your blood pressure, to name a few.”

Many long-term survivors of HIV are dealing with new health challenges they did not anticipate living long enough to face. Trans seniors can also face obstacles with coverage. Lambda Legal recently fi led a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of Marc Lawrence, a transgender retiree of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. In addition, Lambda Legal has sued on behalf of Sean Simonson, a retired transgender employee of Oswego County, New York. Both were denied coverage because their policies contained a blanket exclusion of all transition-related care.

If you have HIV or are transgender, Lambda Legal’s online resource Know Your Rights (lambdalegal.org/kyr) offers information about your rights in health care settings. If you are mistreated in a health care setting, contact Lambda Legal’s Help Desk at lambdalegal.org/help.

DISCRIMINATION AFTER DEATH

The mistreatment of LGBT people does not necessarily stop when they die. Marriage equality should protect surviving spouses of LGBT people when it comes to inheritance and property, but those with chosen families still face challenges. In the absence of a will, for example, the law looks to the next of kin fi rst for inheritance rights. So there are instances where an unmarried samesex partner or a queer chosen family member is disinherited. “We do lots of intakes about greedy, distant nieces and nephews,” says Loewy at Lambda Legal. (For more steps you can take to protect yourself and loved ones after life, see “Life and Financial Planning” at lambdalegal.org/kyr.)

There is also plain, old-fashioned discrimination. Lambda Legal recently fi led a lawsuit against a funeral home in Picayune, Mississippi that refused to take the deceased body of Robert Huskey despite a contract. Just hours after his death, his husband Jack Zawadski had to scramble to fi nd another funeral home with an on-site crematorium 90 miles away.

THE EMOTIONAL TOLL

Aging alone, whatever your sexuality or gender identity is tough. Older people need companionship, support and community. 

“In many ways we are defi ning what it is like to grow old [as LGBT]," says Don Bell, who moved into an LGBT-friendly living center in Chicago three years ago.

Theo Hutchinson, 63, a professor in Southern Ohio, came out as trans and began transitioning four years ago. Although he does connect with other older trans men through Facebook groups, living in rural Ohio can be isolating. “For most cis people you have 20 years to develop your gender,” he says. “I am trying to squish that into two years. I am going through puberty alone, without a peer group.”

The isolation of aging LGBT people is baked into our society. In a recent paper titled “Queering Aging Futures,” scholars Linn J. Sandberg and Barbara L. Marshall question the very notion of “successful aging” for LGBT people, because it’s so often seen through a heteronormative lens, with grandkids to dote on and beloved family home to welcome them. The stereotype of the lonely, sad, old “bitter queen,” makes that heteronormative future look even more desirable.

“Aging has really bad branding,” says World Famous *BOB*. As an activist, volunteer and employee at SAGE, she created several performance events, connecting SAGE clients and New York’s downtown performance scene. *BOB* volunteered and then worked for SAGE as their “Creator of Fun”, producing shows that mixed older and younger people. “We got the theater donated,” she says. “We sold out. Everyone in the burlesque world told me how much it changed their lives. There’s just not a real structure that bridges the young and old. The puzzle is: How do the planners make it happen?”

Part of accomplishing that is for younger people to be able to learn their history, and celebrate the path our seniors laid, and the price they paid, for our community’s progress and growth. “One of my missions is to represent the fi rst ‘out’ generation,” says Bell, who lives in Chicago’s Town Hall. “In many ways we are defining what it is like to grow old [as LGBT].”

Last June, Hutchinson, the Ohio professor, won an essay contest organized by SAGE and Airbnb. The prize was a free trip to New York City Pride. “The SAGE bus pulled onto Fifth Avenue,” Hutchison says. “The younger people were marching with us and surrounding the bus. To have that honor and love exchange with the crowd was the best feeling.”

Being seen, being there for each other, appreciating each other for who we are—it strengthens what we already know. The LGBT community works best when it’s just that: a community.

Go to the National Resource Center on LGBT Aging to find local resources for caregiving and information on a variety of LGBT aging topics: lgbtagingcenter.org/resources.

If you or someone you care for is discriminated against at a senior living facility, contact Lambda Legal’s Help Desk at lambdalegal.org/help.