Lionel Mayrand spent more than a decade working with the elderly. He helped train staff for the National Meals for the Elderly Project and wrote the first grant application for Elderhostel, an international senior travel network. Along the way, Mayrand found and lost one of the great loves of his life. "I am an AIDS widower," he says. "My financial life was wiped out by the illness of my partner in life and business. I lost so many friends to AIDS, I'm starting to forget their names." Recently, the sixtysomething tax specialist noticed the Senior Services meal program located near his house and suddenly found himself wrestling with the idea of attending. It was not so much a matter of pride or of realizing his age, but of community. With his unique life experiences, would he feel welcome?
Getting older is a challenge for many people. But retired LGBTs often face unique difficulties. They feel a sense of isolation and discrimination more hurdles for a group that weathered straight hatred and the AIDS pandemic. There's also a lack of established infrastructure particular to their needs: many LGBT people of the baby boom generation, which is just now hitting retirement age, had to leave their families behind in order to live openly, so they may not have an inheritance or traditional family support to turn to. And because AIDS left so few survivors of earlier queer generations, the health care system is woefully unprepared to meet current senior queer physical and psychological needs. In a way, today's senior queers are pioneers.
"Queer seniors often lack the family support systems that older straights take for granted," says Michael Adams, executive director of New York<\d>based Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders, or SAGE. Now 29 years old, SAGE is the oldest and largest organization in the country focusing on the needs of LGBT seniors. "Many queers may have been disconnected from their birth families for many years, and they're less likely to have had children of their own. Older queers are also likelier to live alone and less likely to be in relationships," Adams says.
Meanwhile, older queers also face more discrimination from senior organizations, nursing homes, and health care providers, he adds. Some groups, such as the Red Cross, are committed to discrimination for religious or philosophical reasons. In other organizations, individual staffers may just have an issue. Worst of all, "a lack of support in the LGBT community itself" exacerbates this problem, Adams says. "There's ageism in every community, but when you're talking about a population of seniors that faces such difficulty in the senior world," the indifference of the LGBT community compounds the problem.
Local organizations, however, are stepping up to provide the kind of help non-LGBT seniors might not get from their nuclear families or the gay community at large. The queer-oriented New Leaf Outreach to Elders in San Francisco offers 24 senior activities and 50 meetings per week at different sites around the city, as well as health and counseling services at its clinic on Hayes Street. And New Leaf isn't afraid to use the past to help the future.
"The way in which the gay and lesbian communities mobilized to take care of the HIV pandemic has become a model for organizations taking care of straight people," says Bill Kirkpatrick, a New Leaf social services worker. Even mainstream organizations taking care of the elderly are learning from the queer response to HIV, he says. "As the epidemic created models for us to take care of ourselves, the same thing is happening in the aging community."
TAKING IT STRAIGHT
Accommodating the needs of queer seniors doesn't mean reinventing the wheel, Kirkpatrick adds.