Palette Magazine

The future of senior housing for the LGBTQ community

By Carina Mask

Illustration: Barbara Pollak-Lewi

While it is important to celebrate all the achievements and victories made across the country in the last decade, 47 years have passed since the Stonewall Riots that rocked Greenwich Village, kick starting the movement that has culminated in the strides we can now celebrate. The LGBT activists and supporters that clashed with police during their raids are now the very people on the brink of yet another revolution. As they continue to age and transition from working to retirement, this growing population is faced with a number of challenges, most of which were never considered by previous generations of LGBT seniors, who often remained in the shadows their entire lives. While the vast majority of their heterosexual counterparts can depend on spouses and children to care for them well into old age, the aging LGBT community’s network of friends most often extends laterally, meaning their support network is aging right along with them. This generation — which endured the loss of countless loved ones during the AIDS epidemic, did not have the legal protection afforded by marriage rights and is almost universally childless — will depend heavily on the services offered and provided by public institutions, businesses and nonprofit groups, especially when it comes to housing.



 

Build It and They Will Come

A local organization working hard to address this very issue is The Pride Center. The board of directors is currently exploring different avenues toward building an affordable place for seniors to live right on the center’s 5 ½ acre campus, which itself is in the heart of Wilton Manors. When the nonprofit organization Gay & Lesbian Elder Housing identified and reported on the dearth of low-income senior housing in greater Fort Lauderdale, it touched a nerve. Knowing that the Center specializes in filling gaps in services to the community, the City of Wilton Manors approached it with this issue. Tapped by the city and armed with data and figures on the growing national trend toward senior housing projects being built alongside LGBT community centers, they got to work right away.

For the last 3 ½ years, the Center’s board has been assessing the needs and potential for creating and maintaining a high-quality residential community for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender older adults that meets the needs of those individuals while remaining financially accessible for them. Currently, the Senior Affordable Housing Project is one of the Center’s biggest endeavors. Though still in the process of securing funding, the Center teamed up with CarrFour — Florida’s largest nonprofit developer — to start the plans for this project. Like any other project, elder housing needs to be well conceived and well operated to succeed, and this may include a number of considerations and design elements including: substantial green space; welcoming common areas where seniors can congregate and socialize; special rooms to pursue hobbies, take classes or host events; and, of course, accessibility features.

Since The Pride Center already runs one of the largest senior programs in the country, it has extensive experience providing precisely these kinds of amenities and features, making it the ideal candidate for just this kind of project.

“The center provides programming, such as Coffee & Conversation; SAGEworks, which provides job training for older adults; senior exercise classes; workshops; and individualized navigation and linkage services to help people get linked and into culturally proficient health care providers,” says Kristofer Fegenbush, The Pride Center’s chief operating officer.

It is up to Bruce Williams, the senior services coordinator at the Center, to plan these activities, meetings and workshops. The senior exercise classes, for example, are a collaborative effort between the Center and the YMCA, and, according to Fegenbush, that program is one of the largest of its kind in the country for the YMCA.

These kinds of services are crucial for LGBT seniors. Not only do they provide access to much needed information and care, but they also create a safe space in which seniors can socialize with each other.

While a number of senior housing projects have been proposed and even started in South Florida, the Center is poised to break ground in a way that can set a standard for the industry as a whole.



 

Empower Through Education

Given the lack of LGBT-specific senior housing, there is also a push to educate mainstream facilities to provide culturally sensitive services to this underrepresented population. More than 39 million people in the United States are currently 65 years or older, and an estimated 1.5 million of them identify as LGBT. While it’s practically impossible to get exact figures — as not even federal health surveys include questions regarding sexual orientation or gender identity — one thing is certain: The numbers are expected to double by 2030. And not all of these people will have access to LGBT housing, even if there’s a building boom.

“From data nationwide [we know] that about 45 percent of LGBT seniors do not feel comfortable disclosing their sexual orientation,” says Fegenbush. “We feel that part of our role here is to help link people to care that is proficient and confident and sensitive to their needs.”

SunServe in Wilton Manors is a locally based nonprofit agency that provides a full roster of educational and training services that help support marginalized youth, seniors, minorities and HIV positive persons.

“It’s important for health care organizations — if they’re going to give quality care for their patients — [to] be as visible as possible. The exact opposite happens in the LGBT community,” says Jim Lopresti, a senior clinical supervisor and director of education at SunServe. “When we’re most vulnerable we become the most invisible.”

SunServe has a series of programs aimed at educating mainstream senior service providers about the special needs the LGBT community may have. The organization hosts workshops at different locations, including home care agencies, assisted living facilities, hospitals and hospices and makes use of scenario-based training to bring cross-cultural care for LGBT senior patients. Using the Joint Commissions’ field guide on LGBT patient care — which pushes for hospitals in the in United States to be more welcoming, understanding and inclusive of LGBT patients — SunServe has created an evaluation scale.

“I went to an independent living facility for older adults, and I interviewed the LGBT people that live here, at least the ones who came forward,” explains Dr. Robert Verstaag DSW, an independent contractor for SunServe. “I found closeted older adults living, not in fear, but they would still ‘de-gay’ their apartment if someone came in.” That is precisely the kind of cultural awareness facilities and care providers need to have in order to serve their communities.



 

Community Through the Ages

One key factor that affects senior service providers across all demographics, is promoting and maintaining a sense of community. When seniors have spaces where they can feel comfortable and relevant, it can improve overall health, minimize negative views of disability, ward off depression and generally improve their quality of life.

Recognizing the scarcity in senior housing and the side effects that can have, organizations like Jewish Community Services of South Florida (JCS) have stepped up. JCS has plenty of experience supporting the local community. Its newest initiative — specifically targeting LGBT seniors — was launched last July.

“We have lots of different kinds of stories,” says Joan Schaeffer, JCS’s community liaison for LGBT services. “We have wealthier LGBT people. We have poorer LGBT people, people of all kinds of backgrounds...the housing thing is something that keeps coming up again and again.”

As a result, the organization’s growing roster of dedicated programs includes assistance securing appropriate housing, along with counseling for individuals, couples and families; support groups; education and training; and a host of social activities.

Though JCS is still in the initial stages of addressing the housing problem — which is especially pronounced in Miami-Dade, where Schaeffer explains there is pretty much nothing available — the organization is training whoever it can to provide culturally appropriate services wherever seniors currently live.

In addition to training, they are also focused on hosting events. “Social activities will continue to play an important role,” says Schaeffer. “It’s incredible because a lot of these people have no place be and no place to go to socialize.”

For people who came of age when straying from the norm was grounds for social exclusion, prison terms and even death — think holocaust survivors — access to resources that provide informed care with respect is its own kind of homecoming.

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