The image of a frisky senior citizen chasing buxom candy stripers around the nursing home is so nonthreatening it’s almost charming. But if that same senior was making passes at the male orderlies, America wouldn’t look on it so kindly. As the first generation of gays to live out and proud ages into the adult-care sector, more and more LGBT elders are finding themselves going back into the closet.
In this week’s East Bay Express, Nancy Lopez reports:
Part of the problem is that we know very little about LGBT seniors — their fears, the extent of their health needs, and how to begin to address them.
Currently, no national health data exist to keep tabs on the size of this population or adequately assess their particular health needs. The National Health Interview Survey — the most referenced federal health survey — doesn’t include lesbian and gay people, much less seniors. The lack of evidence-based research has resulted in little to no funding from federal and state governments toward LGBT-specific programs or education. According to Outing Age 2010, a recent report by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, “due to a lack of commitment by federal and state governments to study LGBT people, the specific vulnerabilities of LGBT elders are hidden from view and thus impossible to address.”
Lopez writes heartbreakingly about gay seniors who face isolation, segregation and outright discrimination.
…[A] senior who frequents the Rainbow Community Center’s senior lunches had to move his partner of nearly forty years into a small board and care — typically, this kind of facility is family-run and more affordable. His partner had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. One day as he was hugging and kissing his partner, a staff person walked into the room.
“The staff decided that the healthy partner was molesting the other partner and reported him to the state,” said [Rainbow Community Center director Ben] Barr, noting that management went so far as to try to have the healthy partner’s benefits taken away. Barr said the healthy partner managed to stop the complaint.
“If this had been a heterosexual couple, a wife hugging her husband, they wouldn’t have set off alarm bells,” said Barr.
There are signs of improvement, at least in the greater Bay Area, which has one of the largest gay populations in the country. Salem Lutheran Home in Oakland and the five-star Chaparral House in Berkeley are noted for the attention and respect they give to their gay residents. And the Rainbow Community Center connects volunteers with elderly gays in need of companionship and assistance. But nationwide, LGBT seniors are still a population that’s woefully underserved; invisible in many ways.
The tragic irony is that a generation ago, many gay men never thought they’d live to see 40. Having survived the AID crisis, they now find themselves unprepared to face the many little deaths of age and infirmity.