There are few gay men who can’t do an imitation of Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard. ” (“I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.”) The quintessential commentary on what it means to grow old in a perpetual youth culture, Billy Wilder’s classic film featured a 50-year-old Swanson in the role of the “aging” silent-film star, Norma Desmond.
Today, 50 is the new 40, not the death knell it was for both Swanson and her character. Yet, for many LGBT seniors, life can be as lonely and desperate as Desmond’s was in “Sunset Boulevard.”
Add scary to that list. LGBT seniors face challenges their heterosexual counterparts simply do not. The most notable problems facing queers as they age are being alone and penniless. And for many older gay men, HIV/AIDS is another issue they face, making aging all the more difficult.
According to a recent study by the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law at UCLA, lesbians and gay men are twice as likely as heterosexuals to grow old unpartnered and nearly 10 times more likely not to have someone (a spouse, child or other family member) to care for them in old age.
In addition to these daunting concerns, the Williams Institute report also cites lesbians and gay men as being half as likely to have health or long-term-care insurance. And, like a majority of seniors overall, the LGBT elderly do not have access to affordable and accessible housing.
This worrisome reality leaves many LGBT seniors — as well as those in their 40s and 50s — fearful of an uncertain future.
At 73, James Morrison (not his real name) is representative of many older gay men. He lives with his three cats in the tiny Manhattan apartment he’s rented for nearly 30 years. But with a kidney ailment and other health issues, he’s often confined to the third-floor walk-up, because he isn’t always able to take the stairs.
Morrison managed to escape the murderous impact of the AIDS crisis in New York City in the 1980s and ’90s. But now, being a survivor of that time also means most of his closest gay friends are dead, leaving him with an almost-wholly heterosexual group of acquaintances.
Morrison also feels “trapped” in his apartment and isolated from other gay people. “I feel like that guy on ‘Brothers & Sisters’ — the old queen who never has a boyfriend and only hangs out with his sister and her children. That’s me. Except my sister lives in another state.”
Maintaining his identity as a gay man has been hard for Morrison, and skewed his sense of self. “It seems sometimes as if being a gay man is something I was in another life,” he said. “I feel quite divorced from the gay community. I want to be with men my own age who are also gay, but that just seems a fantasy.”
Outreach to LGBT elders is complex. Like Morrison, many older LGBT people lose their connections to the queer community as they age or become physically limited.
Irene Benedetti, a long-time aide to City Councilman Frank DiCicco, has worked on LGBT political issues in Philadelphia for several decades. At 67 and living alone, Benedetti is keenly aware of what older LGBT people face — particularly the isolation so many feel from the queer community. She’s worked on these issues for the past few years and recently organized a reunion at Sisters for lesbians who frequented the clubs in the 1960s and ’70s.
Benedetti suggests outreach as the best and most essential approach to drawing LGBT seniors back into the community. Drawing on her own experience with organizing, Benedetti said, “The LGBT organizations sometimes give discounts to students at their fundraisers. Some seniors out there may not have the money to attend events, but would like to show their support, too. A senior discount might get them there.”
Being involved with other seniors is also vital, Benedetti noted.
Senior centers should have an LGBT night on a regular basis to encourage sexual-minority seniors to interact with and meet other LGBT elders, she suggested.
Some LGBT groups now have online links for older queers. Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Elders (SAGE) has a large Web site with a range of services, as well as a social calendar for LGBT seniors.
But finding other seniors isn’t the only hurdle facing queer elders.
Like those noted in the Williams Institute study, Morrison subsists on Social Security and Medicare, which don’t meet all his financial or health needs — an added stressor.
The National Lesbian and Gay Task Force has made aging a priority issue for the past five years, working to include LGBT issues and funding for LGBT elder concerns in other national programs on aging, healthcare and housing among them.
NLGTF managed to include LGBT language in the 2005 White House Conference on Aging Report and, in 2006, initiated the “first-ever LGBT Aging Roundtable,” which consisted of “bringing together LGBT aging activists and professionals” to discuss their work, as well as “building a national network for those involved with LGBT elder issues, services, policies and advocacy.”
As good as the budding NLGTF programs are, however, they are no match for the realities of aging and where that leaves LGBT elders.
“I admit that I have really serious concerns about what will happen to me and my partner when we are officially old,” said Terri Lombardi. At 55, she’s far from retirement, but when her 90-year-old father died a few years ago, Lombardi said, “it was a wake-up call for me. My father was ill and debilitated for nearly 20 years prior to his death. Fortunately he had my mother and me and my other siblings to care for him. He had worked hard and invested well, so he could afford to be taken care of. But I don’t think my partner and I will be as fortunate. To begin with, it’s not like we will have the marriage benefits my parents had, since same-sex marriage isn’t legal here in Pennsylvania.”
Lombardi faced a cancer scare a year ago. Having to come out to every medical professional she dealt with made her uncomfortable.
“I’ve been out since I was a teenager,” she explained, “but I just began to realize how intrusive the healthcare process can be when you aren’t able to just say, ‘This is my wife.’ It just adds another hardship to an already-difficult situation.”
According to SAGE, LGBT elders will indeed face greater indignities in old age than their straight peers. Lambda Legal Defense has filed several lawsuits on behalf of LGBT elders who have been discriminated against in assisted-living facilities and elder-care housing.
In Philadelphia, there is no assisted-living facility or nursing home with specific programs for LGBT elders. None of the facilities contacted would give a statement on the record about their lack of LGBT programs, nor would anyone comment on what provisions, if any, they made for LGBT residents. With Pennsylvania having one of the oldest populations of any state, the need for such facilities for LGBT seniors is obvious.
A survey conducted for SAGE’s Long Term Care Task Force found that only 13 percent of long-term-care facilities include sensitivity training on sexual orientation. A study by the Milwaukee County Department for the Aging found that the city’s gay and lesbian seniors were five times less likely than straight seniors to access needed services if they feared discrimination. No such studies have been done in Philadelphia, but it can be assumed the responses would be similar.
Benedetti said this is one area she and others in the LGBT community in Philadelphia are hoping to address — dealing with residential facilities for LGBT seniors. Several other cities in the U.S., notably New York, Boston, Houston, Miami and Los Angeles, have residential and assisted-living facilities specifically for lesbians and gay men.
One place LGBT seniors can find “safe space” is — surprisingly — at the Philadelphia Senior Center, Broad and Lombard streets. PSC is one of America’s oldest and largest senior centers, with events and programs for all seniors — including LGBT elders.
According to PSC’s Web site, it is “the largest senior center in Philadelphia” and “offers a community center in Center City on the Avenue of the Arts for GLBT seniors, including a fitness center, social services, housing and counseling and support services. PSC also offers GLBT clients help with legal aid and referral, taxes, financial management services and counseling. PSC also provides programming and special events year-round, including the popular Arts on the Avenue program.”
That PSC not only has these programs but advertises them sets it aside from the majority of similar centers nationwide. The central location of PSC — situated just off the Gayborhood — makes it even more inviting, particularly for LGBT seniors who are not politically oriented or aren’t familiar with the queer community.
The William Way LGBT Community Center, 1315 Spruce St., also has programs for LGBT elders, including psycho-education group Mornings OUT, social group Silver Foxes and a fitness program, Senior Stretch.
According to director ‘Dolph Ward Goldenburg, there are currently a series of programs specifically for LGBT seniors, and seniors are welcome at any of the center’s other events. And the center will soon have an elevator, which will make it more accessible to seniors and others with disabilities or difficulty navigating stairs.
One program acutely necessary, according to most advocates for elder care in the LGBT community, has also been established at William Way. The “Connecting Generations Friendly Visitor Program” may be one of the best ways to link older members of the community with younger members. The program matches an LGBT senior who is homebound or in a residential facility with a “friendly visitor.” Since half of LGBT seniors, like their heterosexual counterparts, are homebound, this program is a vital link to the community.
The queer community has long been focused on youth and being young. What happens to queers as they age never got addressed — until now, when the nation as a whole is aging and Baby Boomers comprise nearly a fifth of the population.
Philadelphia has a large aging population, among it a significant number of sexual minorities over 50. The community as a whole — and social workers and politicians in particular — must begin to look at how best to serve the aging LGBT population so that growing old does not mean, as it has for seniors like Morrison, divorcing themselves from their queer identities. With the first out generation of queers entering old age, the time to address these issues is definitely now. And each city and town — including Philadelphia — must concern itself with what happens to LGBT people as they grow old, so that they do not end up isolated and alone.