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SAGE Harlem: A Naturally Occurring Retirement Community (NORC)

November 2011 | Tom Weber, Director Community Services, SAGE

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Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE) started the SAGE Harlem Program in early 2004 at the request of LGBT older people of color living in Harlem for culturally and linguistically competent services close to home. They wanted to take advantage of SAGE’s services and programs, but did not want to travel downtown for everything produced by SAGE.  SAGE already had an experience of creating neighborhood programming some years before in response to similar requests from LGBT older adults on Manhattan’s Upper Westside, the SAGE Upper Westside Neighbors Program.  The Harlem Program, however, with the added cultural competency piece, was designed to work on a larger scale and to be more extensive.

SAGE received initial funding for the program from the Fan Fox and Leslie R. Samuels Foundation to create the SAGE Harlem NORC Program.  NORC stands for Naturally Occurring Retirement Community and personifies the idea of "aging in place."  The concept of a NORC embraces the idea that a large number of people moved into an apartment building or complex 30 or 40 years ago, and then  stayed.  Now elderly, these people make up a large percentage of the population of the building and need services.  A NORC program provides services inside the building or complex so people don’t need to go out to get them.  NORC programs generally have three service components: a housing partner, a social worker or case manager, and one or two medical providers, usually a visiting nurse and the nearest hospital.  The goal of these services is to keep people in their own homes as long as possible as opposed to having them go to an institution.

The idea of the NORC, which was primarily vertical in its conception, because they started in tall apartment buildings, was expanded to accommodate very specific neighborhoods where there was a large population of older adults.  Thus the "horizontal" or neighborhood NORC was born.  SAGE adapted this idea even further to cover a much larger geographic area, Harlem and East Harlem, to serve anyone who feels they have a gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or same-gender-loving identity. 

Most of the people we serve in the SAGE Harlem NORC are African American in Central and West Harlem, and Latino in East Harlem.   The SAGE Harlem NORC was founded with the following overarching goals in mind:

  • To have a secure space for LGBT elders from Harlem and the surrounding communities to meet, socialize, and plan and produce programming
  • To increase awareness of the needs of LGBT older adults in Harlem and East Harlem through SAGE’s integration into the existing care networks and provider networks
  • To make existing services more available to LGBT older adults by providing education and training to mainstream providers on LGBT cultural competency and issues specific to aging for LGBT people, and by producing collaborative programming
  • To produce culturally competent services for LGBT older adults in Harlem and East Harlem in the neighborhood where they live, thereby providing the reason for being of all NORC programs – that they help older adults age in place

The SAGE Harlem NORC Program currently has offices and a small programming space in a historic building, the former Theresa Hotel, at the corner of 125th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Blvd, in the heart of Harlem.  The Theresa Hotel is revered in the African American community as the place where Black celebrities could stay when they visited New York City during the 40’s and 50’s, a time when they were barred from many other hotels further downtown. The Theresa Hotel is also known as the place where Fidel Castro stayed when he visited the United States in the early sixties.

The SAGE Harlem NORC provides a "safe space" to our constituents by:

  • Providing opportunities for participation, recreation and building social networks
  • Producing social services and providing support
  • Facilitating educational opportunities and providing information
  • Partnering with medical and mainstream providers and community-based organizations to raise visibility of LGBT older adult issues, and to improve access and quality of services

Because the SAGE Harlem Program is a neighborhood NORC which covers a large area wherein people live in many different types of housing,   does not have a traditional NORC housing partner.  However, it does provide the following services:

  • Bilingual case management services
  • Weekly on-site bilingual nurse services (provided by Visiting Nurse Service of New York)
  • Support groups for men and women in English and Spanish, and an HIV+ group for same-gender loving men
  • Monthly constituent meetings, called HEAT meetings (Harlem Elders Aging Together)
  • Cultural programming, including being a proud sponsor of the newly launched Harlem Pride festivities over the last couple years
  • Monthly social events, holiday celebrations and outings
  • Legal presentations and clinics

In the last couple of years, the SAGE Harlem NORC expanded its service options by partnering more with medical service providers, like local hospitals, clinics and HIV programs, and produced a health fair that was attended by over 100 people.  The program has also been expanding its financial and legal assistance to program participants through case management, volunteer attorneys and community partners who specialize in benefits counseling and financial literacy services.  In addition, the program has developed a full-complement of Spanish-English services.     

The SAGE Harlem NORC could never accomplish a quarter of what it does without the help and support of its volunteers, most of whom are also program participants.  They assist in planning and producing program events, perform tabling and outreach, and run support groups. 

Community partners, who range from Visiting Nurse Services to other senior service providers, community-based organizations, local elected officials, churches, libraries, parks and cultural institutions, have also been indispensable to the success of the program from the very beginning.

The SAGE Harlem NORC has also attracted LGBT people from other parts of the city to its programming, especially the nearby Bronx.  As a result, SAGE is planning to expand its Harlem services into the Bronx and recently conducted a needs assessment with LGBT older adults of color who live in the Bronx to inform its upcoming programs.

For more information about the SAGE Harlem NORC, please contact SAGE Director of Community Services, Tom Weber, at tweber@sageusa.org


As Director of Community Services, Tom has oversight responsibility for all of SAGE's congregant service programs, which includes The SAGE Center - the nation's first municipally-funded, full time center for LGBT older adults, part of the Mayor's Innovative Senior Center Initiative. It also includes all of SAGE's programs at the LGBT Community Center, the SAGE Harlem Center, the Life-Long Learning Program, volunteer and outreach programs, and SAGEWorks, an employment assistance program for LGBT people age 40 and over. Tom has been with SAGE for over 8 years. Prior to this experience, Tom worked at GMHC for almost 15 years in volunteer management and as Coordinator of the Buddy Program.

© 2011-2014 Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint these articles, or post them online, please e-mail us.

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Helen Cockrell   April 27, 2013 at 10:30 AM
I believe this concept is fabulous and so needed! I hope your model spreads everywhere as an example of how a community can embrace their own and help each other age well together!! ___________ Let's Age Well

Lydgia Pass   January 29, 2013 at 6:58 PM
The idea of NORC's reiterates the importance of providing space, programming and PEOPLE to preserve one's history and place in community. As someone who was raised and still resides in Harlem after 47 years, I look forward to being an active participant with the NORC family as I age hopefully "in place".

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