When Angie Perone began as the Executive Director of SAGE Metro Detroit in 2015, the organization had a few part-time staff and a budget of under $50,000. Since then, SAGE, whose mission is to build awareness and promote change so that LGBTQ+ older adults may age with dignity and authenticity, has tripled its staff, significantly expanded programs and services, and grown its budget to over $500,000 — not a bad note on which to end a tenure.
Perone, who lives in Michigan with her wife and their 4-year-old son, is leaving SAGE to do health policy work in Washington, D.C. for a year before moving to the University of California, Berkeley to begin a job as an assistant professor in social welfare and to oversee Berkeley’s Center for the Advanced Study on Aging Services.
Perone has mixed emotions about leaving SAGE.
“It’s time to hand the baton to a new leader, which is exciting but a little bittersweet for me,” she said. “But, of course, I’m excited to see this organization continue to grow.”
The COVID-19 epidemic has been especially difficult for older adults and LGBTQ+ older adults face some additional challenges that leave them further isolated, including living much of their lives with legal discrimination and hostility.
“LGBTQ older adults are twice as likely to be single and live alone, four times less likely to have children and rely much more heavily on friends for caregiving,” Perone said. “LGBTQ older adults have higher rates of social isolation and health disparities that have significantly increased the mental and physical health risks of COVID-19.”
Like many organizations, SAGE had to quickly meet a great need during this pandemic. The ability to adapt and meet challenges often hinges first on an organization’s leader and second on its staff and volunteers.
“From the very beginning [Perone] referred to us as The Team, and she meant it,” said Training and Education Manager Judy Lewis. “She drew on each of us for our areas of expertise and blended it together into a powerful organization.”
SAGE rose to the occasion by significantly expanded programs and services to address the pandemic also.
“We have provided nearly 15,000 meals since 2020 and developed new virtual programming that has served over 1,000 LGBTQ older adults,” Perone said.
An especially forward-thinking service was SAGE’s Friendly Caller program, “which connects LGBTQ older adults with other members of the LGBTQ communities and allies to maintain connection,” according to SAGE’s website. Perone said that the Friendly Caller Program has been used as a model during the pandemic for other organizations nationwide.
SAGE also provided tablets to seniors and launched a program to offer tech support to seniors so that they can keep connected virtually with their community. The program “builds on our intergenerational programming with LGBTQ youth and young adults to support knowledge and community-building across generations,” Perone saaid.
Connecting generations was a priority for Perone among the staff, as well. “Angie and I come from two very different places,” Lewis said. “I grew up in the 1950s, in a much more silent generation, filled with don’t and can’t. Rather than creating a negative intergenerational energy, which some leaders might, Angie has spent the last several years engaging people of my generation — with life experience that might have been dissimilar to hers [and] to people of her generation — in an effort to build bridges and empower all of us.”
Perone said she’s constantly learning from others.
“I’m not an older adult, so a lot of the stories I’m hearing [about the experiences of older LGBTQ+ adults] are from my colleagues and people we serve,” she says. “We’ve achieved a lot in a really short amount of time and a lot of it is because we have a terrific team who is really committed.”
In addition to seniors living in isolation, SAGE also addresses the challenge LGBTQ+ older adults can face in long-term facilities.
Some of those challenges include, “not respecting the name and pronouns of transgender residents, not respecting their choice of clothing,” Perone said.
“You sometimes have staff who are not trained who are trying to kind of save LGBTQ residents from sin. We’ve had residents who are not allowed to be sexually active with people of the same sex. And then, of course, there’s abuse and harassment by other residents and sometimes staff,” she said. “Some people have been reported being denied care.”
SAGE recently got a large grant from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to do training in such facilities.
Working with over nine LGBTQ+ organizations throughout Michigan, “We’ve developed this really state of the art, high-quality training program that is done in-person and online, which has been really useful during the pandemic,” she said.
SAGE co-founder and former board member Cornelius A. Wilson cited these trainings as an important development under Perone’s leadership.
“I think it was very significant that we were able to secure funding through the MDHHS to provide those trainings to organizations in order to help them become more culturally competent when to comes to helping the older LGBT adult community,” says Wilson who currently serves as SAGE’s program and activities director.
Wilson praises Perone’s focus and says she is “very intentional about what SAGE wants to be for our older adult community.”
“I’m hoping the new person who comes on board [as executive director] will be as open and recognizing that our communities are somewhat disengaged from the broader community,” said Wilson, who would like to see SAGE “offer more direct services” such as housing and rental assistance.
Another area Perone sees as vital is racial justice. After the murder of George Floyd, SAGE held a series of intergenerational conversations via Zoom.
“We had really tough conversations about race and we’ve continued to have these throughout 2020 and 2021,” she said. “They were really well received and bridge some gaps between generations.”
Perone’s hope is that the next executive director is someone “who truly and immensely believes in the cause.”
“This is passion-driven work,” she said. “Obviously we want someone with the skills to deliver what it takes to make the origination grow, but that person needs passion and interest in serving the community. If you have that passion and interest in serving LGBT adults, then everything else falls into place. The baseline most important thing is you’ve got to have that spark, you’ve got to have that passion.”
For more information about SAGE visit sagemetrodetroit.org. SAGE is currently accepting applications for the Executive Director position. Find the job description here: sagemetrodetroit.