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Summit on Older Adult LGBT Issues Held at Affirmations

Summit on Older Adult LGBT Issues Held at AffirmationsJust 4 Us (Crystal A. Proxmire, 4/15/2011, previously published in Between the Lines –

“The thing I really miss is my mind,” said Alice McKeage who retired from Ford Motor Company at the age of 62.  “I find it amazing I can remember the names of people I played field hockey with 40 years ago, but I can’t remember what I ate for lunch yesterday.”

McKeage was one of the panelists at the Summit on Older Adult LGBT Issues held at Affirmations on April 6, 2011.  She and other seniors shared their experiences and fears of growing old.  The summit had participants divide into work groups to explore aging issues, and then everyone shared a meal and listened to Jay Kaplan of the ACLU give a speech about the rights LGBT individuals should be aware of as they face later-life situations.

“Some challenges I faced were physical challenges.  As I get older I have arthritis, a bulging disk in my back,” McKeage said.  “The biggest challenge is that I can’t do the things that I used to do. …I don’t know who to ask for help sometimes.”

The fear of being treated unfairly at a hospital or nursing home was common among participants.  Seventy-seven year old Nancy Unwin, a retired school psychologist, has been living in a retirement home for four years.  “I got active there, but I withdrew from the gay community… I am back in the closet living there,” she said.  “I only come out to people I am comfortable with, but it’s just easier not to talk about it.”

Jim Toy, cofounder of Spectrum Center, expressed worries about what life in a retirement facility might mean.  “We all know that a man’s house is his castle.  If I enter an assisted living facility it is my home, but it is not my castle.  …My power, my autonomy is reduced.  How can I be sure a particular facility has a policy that will protect me from discrimination?  And if there is a policy, how do I know it will be enforced?”

Toy said that he has never seen evidence of gay pride in a retirement home.  “Never in any facility have I seen any magazines, books, pictures on the wall indicating diversity.”

There are fears of abuse or neglect because staff or fellow patients may not respect an individual because of their gender expression or sexual orientation.  Some people worry that they won’t be able to live with their partner if they have to go into a home.  Legal issues are also a concern.  “A lot of us were raised in a different era,” said a woman in the group.  “A lot of us still feel like if we speak up we will be punished.”  These fears, combined with ongoing struggle for equal rights under the law, make this a tough time for the elderly to feel safe going into care homes.

Another big problem is isolation.  There are not LGBT groups in nursing homes, and being away from family or loved ones can be a challenge.  “I am a caregiver to my mother who is 78 years old and is gay,” said one of the participants.  “Every time I call her she is sleeping.  ‘You can only play so much BINGO’ she says.  It was a hard decision to make, putting her in an assisted living facility.  It makes me sad that she is always napping.”

Another audience member suggested that older LGBT individuals should organize and let potential investors know that there is a market here for openly accepting care facilities.

“Affirmations is here because we in the community got together and decided to create a safe place for LGBT youth that wasn’t sexually-focused.  Now we need to get together again to create safe places for LGBT adults as we age,” said another.  Which is exactly what organizers had in mind when they planned the event.

The Summit was put on by a coalition of groups and individuals, including: ACLU of Michigan, Adult Well Being Services, Affirmations, Citizens for Better Care, Equality Michigan, Jewish Gay Network, the Jim Toy Community Center, and S.P.I.C.E.  Information collected at the summit will be used to guide the coalition in working to solve the problems faced by the aging LGBT population.

Those who attended the summit enjoyed a free dinner provided by MediLodge of Southfield. They were also given a 20 page resource guide put together by a group of volunteers led by Judy Lewis, Director of Jewish Gay Network of Michigan. “Modern Family Guide: You and Your Loved Ones GLBT-Friendly Resources for Older Adults” is available at Affirmations.  More older adult events are expected.  Continue to check for more information.

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