Gay senior centers growing in number around the nation

3:32 PM, Jun 30, 2012   |    comments
Gay senior centers on the rise
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ROCHESTER, N.Y. - A group of friends and acquaintances, most of them getting up in years, sit around a long table, drinking coffee, eating cookies and chatting.

It could be the scene at any senior center - which is exactly what the Gay Alliance of the Genesee Valley was going for last month when it opened its gay senior center, one of a growing number of such centers opening across the USA .

"We knew there was a need," said Gay Alliance interim Executive Director Anne Wakeman. As the U.S. population ages, "we've got senior programs in every town and this huge shift in our population," she says. "These services are absolutely necessary."

The White House in May convened in Miami a first-ever conference on aging in the gay community. New York City-based SAGE (Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders), an advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender older adults, earlier this year opened the nation's only full-time gay senior center.

And Chicago's gay social service agency Center on Halstead earlier this year unveiled plans to renovate an old police station in Chicago and create the nation's first affordable housing complex for older gay adults. The 79-unit complex, the second such housing project in the nation (the first is in Los Angeles) is due for completion by late 2013.

SAGE estimates the number of gay Americans who are 65 and over at between 1.8 million and 4 million today. That population is expected to range from 2.2 million to 5.8 million by 2030.

The needs of older gay adults long have been overshadowed by a focus on younger gay people and a general distaste in the world at large, says Britta Larson, Center on Halstead senior services director.

"Our society doesn't like to think of any older adults being sexually active or having a sexual identity," she says. "Now we're getting to see LGBT adults who have fought hard to come out of the closet and don't want to move back when they move into a nursing home."

Older gay adults have issues distinct from those of the population at large, says Catherine Thurston, SAGE's senior director of programs. " Older LGBT people are four times more likely to be aging without benefit of having adult children in their lives and adult children are the No. 1 source of unpaid care giving. They're twice as likely to be aging alone as their heterosexual counterparts."

After years of focusing on AIDS-related services, Tulsa-based Oklahomans for Equality recently has made greater efforts to provide programs for gay seniors, says Executive Director Toby Jenkins. It also is reaching out to the region's senior citizen service providers.

"Every week, we try to follow up with one more group," Jenkins says. "We have more nursing homes and home health care providers than we can get to (because) they know this is a target audience and we have a lot of older gay people in Oklahoma. This part of the country is known as a nice retirement area."

Existing social service providers for seniors often don't know how to deal with the gay population, says Scott Fearing, education director for the Gay Alliance of the Genesee Valley. Along with the new center, the Alliance has been offering training to those service providers.

"We want to break the silence, break the invisibility," Fearing says. "With the aging Baby Boomers - people like myself who came out in 1980 - are going to want to be sure I can come there honest about who I am. You've got people who worked 20, 30 years in their professional capacity out and now testing the waters all over again and no (human resources department) to back them up."

Assisted living communities catering to a gay clientele have had a tougher time finding tenants than some other niche communities for seniors, such as those targeting particular faiths or languages, says Jamison Gosselin, spokesman for the Virginia-based Assisted Living Federation of America. "A lot of older Americans haven't come out of the closet necessarily or told their families," Gosselin says.

But Gosselin says most mainstream senior living facilities try to be as accepting as possible, from anti-discrimination policies to staff training. "If you built a business on core values of quality of life, choice, diginity, etc., you have a responsibility to maintain those values no matter who the person is - Christian or Muslim or Hindu or straight or gay," he says.

Tom Yoki, 67, of Henrietta, N.Y., a recent transplant from Southern California, walked into the Genesee Valley senior center looking for information on gay-friendly Rochester neighborhoods and to make acquaintances.

"It's a birds-of-a-feather kind of thing," Yoki says. "The mainstream senior centers - I don't want to be negative - but I don't think they'd be quite as welcoming."

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