Out and About at Last

Published in the City and County of San Francisco Human Service Agency's
quarterly newsletter Inservice

It’s all too easy for seniors to become isolated as friends and family leave the area or pass away. But for gay and lesbian seniors, that isolation can be compounded if they don’t feel safe or comfortable revealing their sexual identity.

The impact is made clear in the words of a 75-year-old woman living in senior housing. “I am not out,” she said. “The other residents don’t know. It’s like a whole part of me—being a lesbian—doesn’t exist. It’s unpleasant. It makes it hard to make close friends. It’s lonely.”

For younger people, it may seem unimaginable that men and women still live in the closet in San Francisco. But for older residents who have lived their lives in fear of losing their jobs, friends, family and homes if they came out, talking about their sexual identity can seem risky and frightening. As a gay man living in senior housing said of another gay resident, “I wouldn’t want them thinking about me the way they think about him. If I were out, there are some who would take a dim view of me.”

These seniors reported their experiences to nonprofit Openhouse, a partner of the Department of Aging and Adult Services. Openhouse provides housing, services and community programs for San Francisco’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) senior population. Through DAAS funding, the agency is reaching out to mainstream senior centers to help them become more welcoming to LGBT seniors.

“We want to integrate LGBT seniors into the long-term care system here in San Francisco,” said Marcy Adelman, PhD, a co-founder and trustee of Openhouse. “We want to change the face of aging to be more inclusive of all people so that everyone can age and live well, with vitality and health.”

For several years, Openhouse has provided LGBT sensitivity trainings to agencies upon request. “We provide them with an overview of LGBT aging issues,” said Nancy Flaxman, who developed the curriculum and now facilitates the Castro Senior Center LGBT outreach. “We explain that many LGBT seniors are still in the closet, which means they’re not accessing the services that are available to other seniors. Then we have a panel of LGBT seniors share their personal stories, and we finish with best practices for ways to reach out to LGBT seniors.”

Openhouse trainers found that while homophobia still exists, the biggest barrier was simply lack of awareness and education. Most agencies just hadn’t thought much about the issue. LGBT seniors were invisible to them.

For the seniors, however, the issue is crucial. “Nowhere are people more isolated than in settings like senior centers or skilled nursing facilities,” said Flaxman. “The more frail they are, and the more dependent they are on other people to do things like help them bathe or eat, the more likely they are to be in the closet. They’re afraid if they come out, they will be rejected and their care will be compromised. And with good reason—those things still do happen.”

The trainings received rave reviews, and Openhouse was often asked back. But trainers like Flaxman were concerned that the practices learned were not becoming institutionalized. Staff turnover meant that the gains made were soon lost, and LGBT seniors were still having diffi culty accessing services, or feeling comfortable in their living arrangements. There were small improvements, but not the strides that both Openhouse and the community agencies were hoping for.

That’s when Openhouse and DAAS began collaborating on more in-depth education and outreach programs. Staff selected three interested mainstream senior centers—Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center, 30th Street Senior Center, and Castro Senior Center—and took the trainings to a new level.

“The goal of the project is to work with these centers to develop a culture of acceptance to LGBT seniors,” said Karen Rosen, a Program Analyst with the DAAS Office on Aging. “These are three very different agencies, and they’ve picked three very different approaches. It’s been very successful. These centers are really stepping up to the plate to make their services more accessible and really open to the entire community.”

Openhouse trainers Michelle Alcedo and Roxie Kellam look at the needs of each senior center in developing a plan. One center might need forms with more inclusive language, while another needs to include LGBT resources in its pamphlets. Staff often request role-playing opportunities, where they can learn how to approach a senior whom they think might be LGBT and make them welcome without offense.

At the Castro Senior Center, a program of DAAS-funded Golden Gate Senior Services, the emphasis has been on bringing more LGBT seniors to the lunch program as a first step to including them in other services. Despite the center’s location in the heart of the Castro District, very few LGBT seniors were using its services or were open about their identity. Golden Gate Senior Services Executive Director Nick Lederer wanted that to change.

Since the Center has only two staff members, new Program Director Patrick Larkin and Openhouse staff connected directly with volunteers. “We spoke with the few participants who were already out and could be leaders,” said Larkin. “We decided to start a discussion group once per month after the lunch program. We asked each LGBT senior to bring four friends.” About a dozen people attended the first discussion group, which blossomed to 40 LGBT seniors in a few months. Many are becoming a regular part of center activities. The center’s goal is to become the most LGBT-friendly senior center in the city, and it has now taken full responsibility for its own LGBT outreach and programs.

According to Flaxman, the outreach trainings provided by Openhouse are unusual in themselves, but the in-depth programs with senior centers are unique in the country. “My hope is that with this program, LGBT seniors will be able to find community,” she said. “It’s all about reducing isolation, and creating a safe space for them to be who they are.”

The Castro Senior Center
The lunch program at the Castro Senior Center is a bustling mix of straight and LGBT seniors, thanks to the Openhouse outreach program. A few participants spoke to us recently on a day when lunch was followed by a program for LGBT seniors.

Terry Abraham
I used to bring my mother here years ago. I knew a few gay seniors but right here in the middle of the Castro, many of them were very closeted. People should feel free to be open about who they are—it’s healthy mentally and physically. Many people, not just gays and lesbians, need to socialize. It’s easy to stay home and lose contact. This is a nice mixed group—lots of gay and straight people and everyone gets along pretty well. I’ve seen people who were in isolation and it’s a revelation for them to come here.

Felicia Elizondo
I came here to give a presentation about being a transgender woman and they said “why don’t you come for lunch next week?” I had been afraid I wouldn’t be accepted because of how I’ve been treated by gay and lesbian people before, but they’ve been very good to me. I felt welcome as I was walking through the door. Being a transsexual senior, I didn’t have many people I could be open with. My family accepts me, but they don’t call me. Who knew this kind of place existed?

Willard “Skip” Tandberg
For older people, it’s nice to get out socially with people of your own age. Once you get older, you don’t get out as much—some people, like me, you sort of have to talk out of their homes. We have guest speakers every now and then. We learn what services are available, because you get to the point in life where you need them, and it’s hard to find out about them unless you’re in a group like this. We are on fixed incomes, and the way the economy is, it’s getting really, really difficult to make ends meet.

Gordon Smyth
If it wasn’t for this program, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t come to a senior program if I didn’t feel comfortable, and I can say that because I’ve been to others where I felt invisible and not very welcome. I’ve encouraged friends to come too. I think every senior center in the city should be sensitive to all the diversity we have—even a Muslim should feel just as comfortable as an Asian person or a gay person. We add a spark of life to this senior center. It’s very lively on our days.

Copyright © E.G. Communications, Inc. 2014