Gay and gray: LGBT seniors fight isolation with dialogue

Senior citizens often face isolation, especially over the holidays. It’s worse for LGBT seniors. But the solution can be as simple as talking.

Since 2009, the Gay and Gray Discussion Group has been hosted every other Thursday by the Madison Senior Center, a city agency. It’s one of many collaborations between the facility and Madison’s OutReach LGBT Community Center.

“There’ve been lots of national statistics on how LGBT seniors will go back into the closet when they go into a nursing home or assisted living facilities, perhaps because the staff’s not particularly friendly or sensitive, or there are no other out clients that they know of,” says Steve Starkey, OutReach’s executive director. “It negatively impacts their quality of life.”

According to the National Health and Aging Center:

• 82 percent of LGBT seniors have been victimized at least once in their lives, 64 percent at least three times.

• 13 percent have been denied health care or provided with inferior health care.

• 31 percent report depression and 53 percent experience loneliness.

• 14 percent of gay and bisexual male seniors are living with HIV and 27 percent have experienced the death of a partner.

The Madison Senior Center has been working with OutReach since about 2000. “I had come onto this population mainly out of health concerns, just wanting to give more people information on AIDS and HIV,” says Christine Beatty, director of the senior center, 330 W. Mifflin St. “I had read at that time that the largest increase in HIV infection — this was about 2000 — was in people over the age of 50.”

Even today, Starkey says, “Thirty-three percent of new infections in 2012 are over 45.”

Experts aren’t sure why. “It’s possible that older people will think, ‘Well, that’s a young person’s disease. I’m not going out to the bars and that sort of thing, and so I’m not at risk.’ Another thing we thought of is maybe people travel. They’ll go on a vacation, go on a cruise or something and think, ‘Oh I’m just interacting with people over 50, so the odds are low that they’ll be HIV positive.’”

No matter what the reason, “From a health perspective, we were completely silent on that whole issue,” Beatty recalls. “I tend to look at data when I’m doing program development, and what needs to be done. It struck me that something needed to be done.”

After focus group discussions, a variety of programs were started, including educational offerings, sensitivity training for health professionals, social events for LGBT seniors and the Gay and Gray discussion group.

Gay and Gray is led by volunteer facilitator Fay Ferington, a member of the city of Madison Committee on Aging. She’s a former Army nurse with expertise in behavioral psychology who served in Vietnam.

“We are very clear that Gay and Gray is not a support group, a self-help group (or) a therapy group,” she says. “It’s a discussion group. However, discussion can be therapeutic.” 

Participants can share as much or as little as they want of their identity. Most go by first names. No advance notice is required — people just show up. Eight to 15 usually attend, men and women. “That’s not always the case in LGBT groups,” notes Ferington. 

“I think this is really important, to have the two groups kind of cross-pollinating, culturally,” says Starkey. The mix allows for commonalities and contrasts to be examined.

Discussions are informal. Topics are wide-ranging: aches and pains, adolescence, religion, philosophy and politics. And, generally, there’s a lot of laughter. “We hit upon a topic usually within a half-hour or 20 minutes,” Ferington says. “We generally cover two or three topics in the two hours.”

Gay and Gray will go “on the road” this year, meeting at the senior center but also at other locations around the city.

One participant travels from Janesville. “We always made the assumption that the Madison Senior Center, being located in the central area, could be a place where people in smaller communities could come out,” says Beatty.

Just getting LGBT seniors involved is a success, notes Starkey.

“They access senior facilities and senior service programs less than the general population, and they tend to have more health problems than the general population,” he says. “Another issue is isolation. I think seniors in general are isolated, but LGBT seniors are especially isolated. With the baby boomer generation or older, they tend to be either in the closet or, if they did come out, they came out very late.”

“We face an entirely different form of socialization … with people who are 50 and up,” explains Ferington. “We came up in an era of police raids, arrests, harassment, abuse, losing one’s job. So these people, now having grown older, have an entirely different socialization than youngsters for whom — well, it’s not easier, but it’s probably a more supportive environment in some respects.”

Beatty is trying to take the message to others. When working with colleagues on the state and national level, she says, “I’m constantly beating the drum about, ‘Look, you can’t let this population of seniors not get the kinds of levels of outreach that we give to other populations.’”

She recalls one particular LGBT event at the senior center. A social worker from a nursing home brought an older woman in a wheelchair. 

“I greeted her, and she looked around the room and she said to me, ‘I didn’t know there were so many of us.’ And the tears were rolling down her face, and my face, too, because we really did something there.”

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