by Jessica Carreras
Alice McKeage is painting her garage. It’s just one of the many projects she hopes to complete now that she has finally retired from Ford Motor Company, where she founded the company’s LGBT group, GLOBE, 16 years ago. She’s eager to use her newfound free time to fix up the house, but more than that, she hopes to get as many things done as possible – before she can’t anymore.
“My friends and I laugh all the time because you hear, ‘Oh, these are the Golden Years.’ Golden, my ass,” McKeage, 62, jokes. “My knees hurt, my back hurts, my hip hurts. … Things like mowing the lawn – just all of the house things. Right now (my partner and I) are still able to do them, and I hope to have everything done as much as possible, so that when we can’t do it, it won’t matter so much.”
McKeage is part of the gay Baby Boomers – the largest generation of out LGBT people America has ever seen. And as they face senior status, home projects and travel aren’t all they can expect to encounter.
The elderly face many life changes and important decisions: Retirement. Medicare. Money. Health. Social interaction. Wills. Life certainly isn’t over, but it’s changing rapidly. And for America’s LGBT seniors – many of whom are facing old age without the family support, financial benefits and social resources of their straight counterparts – the burdens and decisions are multiplied.
Faced with an aging population, activists and organizations alike are beginning to explore what the concerns of older gays and lesbians are, as well as what they need to do – as individuals, as a community, as a demographic – to ensure that for LGBT elders, the Golden Years don’t turn gray.
Aging gay: A diverse problem
This year, Jim Toy celebrated his 80th birthday. Still active in the gay community in his hometown of Ann Arbor and beyond, he traded his work at the University of Michigan for volunteering and activism and is a familiar face at rallies, fundraisers and other LGBT events.
Like McKeage, who is active at several Affirmations groups, Toy stays involved with organizations and community efforts because the alternative – isolation, a loss of community, feelings of worthlessness – is not an option.
However, he admits that it’s easier for him, living in a relatively small, easy-to-travel college town. Others, stuck amidst the urban sprawl of Detroit, or perhaps rural mid-Michigan, may find it harder to stay connected, especially with retirement, decreased mobility and health issues becoming part of their lives.
The bottom line is that every LGBT senior’s life is different and thus, their concerns are vast and varied.
While Toy worries about health care and nursing home facilities as he hits old age with no family close by to speak of, McKeage simply wonders who will mow her lawn or move a piece of furniture when she and her partner are no longer able to.
Triangle Foundation founder Henry Messer and his partner made sure to get all of their legal paperwork in place, while other members of the community may not have the money or know-how to take such steps to protect their homes and belongings, and to make sure that if they are hospitalized, their partner or friends will be able to be by their side.
For nursing home or assisted living residents, the biggest decision they face may be as simple as whether they can live openly, or be forced to go back into the closet lest they face abuse and discrimination.
“Physical health, of course, is a big issue … for anybody, no matter what their gender identity or sexual orientation,” Toy points out. “The specific challenge to TBLGQ people is finding a practitioner who is skilled, empathic, supportive and willing to advocate for the patient if that need should arise.”
Staying connected and feeling part of the gay community, adds McKeage, is another concern. Even people who once opened doors for LGBT equality now fear falling into the shadows.
“Retirement was hard for me,” she admits. “Not retirement from my job per se, but my friends at Ford GLOBE were like my family because I don’t have any family in this area. … I was a mentor, somebody they would call on for advice, and sometimes it was just for historical information because I had all the archives. I still kind of miss that. That was a hard thing to lose.”
Social interaction, health care, physical assistance, legal documentation, isolation, discrimination – the issues older LGBT people face are large and unique. And both Michigan’s gay organizations, groups, funders and activists – as well as the federal government and national non-profits – are just beginning to figure out how to address them.
The national response
In March, Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Elders, in conjunction with the LGBT Movement Advancement Project, released “Improving the Lives of LGBT Older Adults.” It is believed to be the most comprehensive study ever done assessing the burdens and needs of America’s aging gay population.
Over nearly 100 pages, the study addresses three key components to a happy, healthy older adult life: financial security, health and health care, and social support and community engagement.
Their findings tell the general community what gay seniors already know: that the compiled financial burdens, social issues and health care concerns are and will continue to take a toll on gay older Americans, and that the collective efforts of governments, along with straight and gay organizations and individuals, are needed to both rectify current problems and stop aging issues before they force poverty, poor mental and physical health and discrimination onto gay Baby Boomers.
“The special challenges facing many LGBT older adults must be kept in mind,” writes AARP Chief Operating Officer Tom Nelson in the report. “Whether it’s the problem of aging in isolation, or the treatment of residents in institutionalized settings, or other issues, many LGBT older adults often face special challenges.
“This report will help to inform our country as we move forward to fulfill our highest ideals, appreciate our diversity, take care of each other, and ensure that all our citizens can age with dignity and purpose.”
His mentality about inclusion of LGBT issues in aging discussions is a growing trend amongst organizations and leaders working specifically for the betterment of older Americans’ lives.
President Obama acknowledged it when he released a memo in May calling for all hospitals that accept Medicare and Medicaid to respect the wishes of patients as to whom may visit them or make medical decisions on their behalf. MetLife’s Mature Market Institute released a series of informational packets with legal and health-related tips for LGBT individuals and couples. The Center for American Progress Action Fund held a presentation in April on “Understanding and Meeting the Needs of LGBT Elders.”
And for the first time ever in Michigan, the State Plan on Services to Michigan’s Older Adults for fiscal years 2011-2013 recognized sexual orientation as a factor relevant in ensuring diversity and cultural competency in such places as retirement and nursing homes, as well as in health care facilities.
But recognition and statistics don’t always mean results. For that, several LGBT and allied leaders in Michigan have begun to discuss how to address the issue from the best place possible: within the community.
Michigan’s first steps
When it comes to providing services to the gay elderly in Michigan, funds are not pouring in. But they’re beginning to trickle.
Just this year, both Affirmations and the Jewish Gay Network of Michigan have received grants for work with LGBT seniors. Though not substantial enough to effectively “solve” gay aging issues, for JGN getting a grant for senior programming from the Jewish Women’s Foundation was “an affirmation,” says Executive Director Judy Lewis. “It really said that we’re on the right track and people are recognizing it.”
Their $10,000 will be used to put on four programs that educate seniors and those who care for them and about them on the issues they may face legally, financially, socially “so that we can sensitize people to the needs of GLBT elders and the negative effects of being isolated, and the depression issues and all of that,” Lewis explains.
They also hope to create a resource and training guide for organizations and caregivers to help LGBT elders feel that they can be out as they need assistance, or move into a retirement community.
At Affirmations, a grant from the Phillip and Elizabeth Filmer Memorial Charitable Trust has ensured that they can beef up their senior programming, including technology competency courses, social outings and performances and a ride share and “buddy system” program through which seniors will check on each other.
“There’s a lot of isolation in the elder community and they can’t always rely on family members,” explains CEO Leslie Thompson. “Especially when there’s been a couple that’s been together for a number of years and the loss of one of the members of that couple, that other person is so incredibly isolated. Our groups meet twice a week, but all those other days of the week, they don’t have somebody to reach out to.”
For both JGN and Affirmations, the hope is that this is the start of more long-term efforts.
“We’re hoping it’s only the beginning – that this sets a tone and that we can get more funding,” Lewis adds. “Because certainly, as generous as the Jewish Women’s Foundation has been, it doesn’t begin to do what we need it to do. This is something we believe is going to be ongoing.”
Thankfully, JGN and Affirmations have help in the newly formed aging coalition that has now met several times to discuss the needs of Michigan’s gay seniors and what agencies can do to help meet them.
Affirmations has already begun the process by holding a focus group comprised of members of its Young @ Heart social group.
The findings were parallel to what both studies and other unaffiliated individuals listed as their hopes: volunteer opportunities, a mentoring program with gay youth, social outings and personal assistance from other members of the community.
The overarching theme was isolation.
“Overall, an immense amount of loneliness was expressed by individuals,” shares Affirmations Chief Administrative Officer Kat LaTosch. “Members expressed a feeling of marginalization in society. They say that their age has little in common with the majority of the LGBT community. … So it’s not just that they’re feeling isolated from the heterosexual community – they’re feeling isolated from the rest of the LGBT community.”
It’s not surprising, then, that the aging coalition’s biggest hurdle is finding older gays to reach out to.
LGBT seniors are less likely to use facilities at existing senior centers, and are less plugged in to resources found on the Internet or in other forms of media. Many do not attend gay events out of feeling unwelcome, and those in retirement communities are unlikely to be out due to fear of being mistreated by neighbors or caregivers.
“The level of closetedness is much higher, so we had a really difficult time reaching LGBT seniors,” LaTosch recalls from a program Affirmations used to offer to gay seniors. “You can’t find people in the normal ways. They may also not be as electronically hooked up, so you can’t really use Facebook or Twitter. … I think you really need to use traditional methods, in terms of AARP and some of those regular, standard ways.”
The plan of the aging coalition is to let seniors know what resources are available to them, and to strengthen those resources so that when LGBT elders come to Affirmations or the ACLU of Michigan or any number of other organizations looking for help, there will be much to offer.
The way to do that, say members of the coalition, is to compile a resource guide for LGBT seniors with gay-friendly legal, religious, social and health care listings. And then hopefully, to obtain funding to distribute it. “I think with the Arcus Foundation and the HOPE fund, there’d be an interest,” comments ACLU’s LGBT Project attorney Jay Kaplan. “If we can get some things started, even on our own that we can start putting together, I think they’d take notice of that.”
And with a one-stop guide to resources that will better their lives in myriad ways, LGBT seniors will certainly take notice.
There’s still much to be done to make life easier, happier and healthier for Michigan’s gay elderly, but leaders in the community who have taken on the task see it as something infinitely valuable for generations to come, and not impossible to take to fruition.
“It’s going to take funding, but it’s mostly education and sensitivity training,” sums up Lewis. “Fortunately, in our current atmosphere, I don’t see it as being overwhelming. I just see us needing to get started with it.”