How LGBT elders and their advocates are keeping the closet door open in retirement

“When I retired I stopped wearing Western clothing, Christopher Ross, left, said after a portrait session with his partner Allan Keech, left, at their home in Durham. They will soon be living in the Village Hearth Cohousing community, to be built next year. It is a place where members of the LGBT community will be welcome among their peers and allies. Casey Toth ctoth@heraldsun.com

“When I retired I stopped wearing Western clothing, Christopher Ross, left, said after a portrait session with his partner Allan Keech, left, at their home in Durham. They will soon be living in the Village Hearth Cohousing community, to be built next year. It is a place where members of the LGBT community will be welcome among their peers and allies. Casey Toth ctoth@heraldsun.com

DURHAM - Christopher Ross and Allan Keech, both 68, are longtime partners who are approaching a time in their lives when, as Ross puts it, “it’s important to know our neighbors.”

They face the normal vulnerabilities of aging – such as health challenges – but as members of the LGBT community, they also must cope with a legacy of discrimination that often makes finding a community of elders difficult for them.

“Having looked at other retirement venues ... generally speaking, they have not had the education to deal with or cope with LGBT people,” Keech said. “A lot of gay people tend to go back in the closet when they go into these facilities,” because they fear being ostracized, he said.

Ross and Keech are by no means alone. “We know people who live in nursing homes and facilities who are afraid to let people know they are LGBT,” said Les Geller of SAGE Raleigh, a program of the LGBT Center of Raleigh. “It’s very common,” Geller said.

Aging members of the LGBT community “are more likely to live alone and with thinner support networks,” according to Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE), a New York advocacy organization. They also face higher disability rates, higher poverty rates, and mental health concerns related to a lifetime of discrimination,” the SAGE website states.

SAGE continues: “Location-related barriers, coupled with stigma and discrimination, can make it difficult for LGBT older people in many parts of the country to find the LGBT-friendly community supports they need to age successfully and avoid social isolation.” The organization estimates that 3 million LGBT people in the United States are age 55 and older.

The UNC School of Social Work in 2013 did a needs assessment of the aging LGBT community in the Triangle. Among the findings from that survey: 46 percent of participants reported they had experienced harassment or worse because of their sexual orientation. Sixty-two percent of respondents wanted more health services geared to LGBT adults, with 80 percent expressing interest in LGBT retirement homes.

Ross and Keech lived in New York before moving to southern Virginia. To avoid the social isolation that the SAGE organization speaks of, they plan to settle permanently in Durham as members of the Village Hearth Cohousing community. Village Hearth Cohousing will be built in northern Durham County for LGBT seniors and people who are friendly toward them.

Even with the milestone Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage, prejudice in retirement communities can manifest in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. When LGBT people enter nursing homes, there is often an undercurrent of gossip, Ross said. “As progressive as we like to think that we are, the old stereotypes exist” and in many ways “we are still primitive,” he said.

Caregivers in nursing homes may not have the training to help LGBT people feel comfortable, particularly those who need help with bathing and other daily activities, said Tim Johnston, director of national projects for SAGE. “Even just one simple instance where they feel uncomfortable as an LGBT person might be enough to get them to go back into the closet,” Johnston said.

Homophobia also is an obstacle to creating a support group, said Judy Kinney, executive director of the Durham Center for Senior Life. The senior center had a support group for LGBTQ people, and Kinney would like to work with the LGBT Center of Durham to resurrect that group and reach out to LGBT elders. “Because of homophobia ... just getting people together sometimes is a challenge for older adults,” Kinney said.

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