Many years ago I had a conversation with a man in his late 70s who volunteered for the organization where I worked. He had lived the first part of his life in the “closet.” A gay man, he was afraid to tell others in his life that he was gay because he feared discrimination, harassment and worse, being rejected by friends and family. This man, Hank, was in the twilight of his life and as he expressed to me all the losses he experienced—not being able to clean his apartment or take the bus or go to the grocery story on his own—his greatest fear was entering a long-term care facility and the pain and isolation of the psychological closet.
Hank was panicked by what may befall him in his final years and it is his life experience that led me to a career in aging. Currently, I am executive director of a new organization, Generations with Pride. If you have read past issues of AgeWise, you saw an article by researcher Karen Fredriksen-Goldsen and the Aging with Pride Study (LGBTQ Older Adults Face Higher Health Risks, November 2015). Local data from this national study was used to demonstrate the need of older LGBTQ adults in Seattle/King County and spurred the City Council to fund Generations with Pride.
Briefly, LGBTQ older adults in Seattle/King County are more apt to live alone, are in great need of affordable housing, and have higher rates of physical and mental health disparities. Over two-thirds have experienced victimization and discrimination based upon their sexual orientation or gender identity. Like my volunteer Hank, LGBTQ older adults are underserved and at risk.
Perhaps the greatest risk is related to isolation, which is so detrimental to the physical and mental health of all older adults. Generations with Pride is focused on developing programs that are cross-generational to support mid-life and older adults in living successfully in the community. Our programming is evidence-based and includes three main components:
- Enrichment and support programs for LGBTQ mid-life and older adults. An example is our new technology drop-in class offered this summer where younger LGBTQ people will work with older adults one-on-one to teach and assist them with their personal devices, such as cellphones and tablets. We will also provide an evidence-based exercise class for LGBTQ older adults this summer.
- A one-stop resource information and referral. After vetting organizations to ensure that they are LGBTQ-accepting and offer safe space we will make available to older adults their families and care givers the list of organizations that provide service to older adults.
- Evidence-based training for providers of care and services. We want to do our part to train those who provide direct service to older adults in Seattle/King County. Our evidence-based training is the first of its kind and will give providers the tools they need to work effectively with LGBTQ older adults.
There is one constant that I have learned from my experience developing programs and services for LGBTQ older adult: When they are provided a safe environment where they feel a sense of belonging and acceptance, they thrive. Our program is meeting the needs expressed by LGBTQ older adults in the Aging with Pride Study.
Sadly, Hank never had an organization like Generations with Pride and, as he predicted, he returned to the closet more isolated than at any time of his life. Together we can ensure that Hank’s story does not get repeated. Please contact us if you would like to be part of our resource and referral and have your staff trained to work with LGBTQ older adults.
Contributor Kathleen Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.