National Resource Center on LGBT Aging
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Weeklong Equality Forum to deal with problems of LGBT seniors

April 25, 2011 — By Dianna Marder —

You could dismiss it as just a broken ankle, but the injury brought reality into the home of Joel Sartorius.

"That's when I realized I could not age in place," says Sartorius, 63, who lives in a charming but multi-staircased Center City townhouse.

As a gay man, Sartorius and his partner of 33 years, Bob Melucci, 69, face thornier problems than most of the country's swelling ranks of aging boomers.

Barred from marrying in most states, the men are legally deprived of rights that straight couples rely on as they age, such as receiving spousal Social Security benefits, and the right to make medical and legal decisions for each other.

Whether they stay in their homes, move to retirement communities, seek out assisted living centers, or enter nursing homes, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals who faced hate and rejection all their lives now have to hope that the people paid to provide intimate care for them as they age are without prejudice.

"The issues are often the same as for many aging people: isolation, health, affordability of health care and housing," says Mark-Allen Taylor, who hopes to age in place in his high-rise condo near Washington Square.

"Being LGBT," Taylor says, "accentuates all the rest."

Some solutions are on the horizon.

In Philadelphia, plans are under way for an LGBT-friendly affordable-housing facility - only the second of its kind in the nation - near the William Way Community Center at 1315 Spruce St.

And last week the National Resource Center on LGBT Aging announced the start of free training sessions aimed at creating a field of caregivers who are sensitive to and knowledgeable about the needs of LGBT elders.

Still, the current population, the 1.5 million LGBT elders who came of age when homosexuality was classified as a crime as well as a serious mental illness, are more likely to be estranged from their families, childless, impoverished, in diminished health, and facing bias from the very social-service agencies charged with helping them, says Michael Adams, executive director of the Manhattan group Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE.)

"There's definitely an increased potential for mistreatment," says Adams, who will moderate a National Seniors Panel at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Hamilton Hall, 320 S. Broad St.

That issue and other discussions are at the heart of the 19th annual Equality Forum, which starts at 6 p.m. Monday with an invitation-only gathering and continues through Sunday with a range of free events, both serious and social, expected to draw 25,000 to 35,000 people.

A panel Tuesday will look at issues facing transgender individuals; LGBT concerns in Latin America is Thursday's focus; and panels on family, workplace, youth, politics, and the law fill out the week. Most events are free and open to all.

Nancy J. Knauer, a Temple law school professor and author of Gay and Lesbian Elders: History, Law and Identity Politics in the United States (Ashgate Publishing, 2010), is also on the National Seniors Panel.

Women earn less in general (76 cents to a man's dollar), and older lesbians are 12 times more likely to live below the poverty line, Knauer says.

The financial situation is even worse for lesbians of color.

"We need to dispel the myth that this is a male-dominated culture, white, with disposable income to spend on decorating," says Heshie Zinman, a panelist who is part of the LGBT Elder Initiative.

Transgender men and women face especially difficult challenges as they age, Knauer says, particularly if their sex doesn't match their appearance. That, she says, underscores the need for "cultural competency training," being offered by the National Resource Center on LGBT aging.

A project of Adams' group, SAGE, the federally funded training will be offered free to agencies and organizations. Four-hour sessions cover topics such as cultural needs and concerns, why some older LGBT adults are reluctant to trust doctors and social workers, and how to overcome that resistance. There is a focus, too, on exploring one's attitudes and assumptions, and on addressing bias.

"But until our country passes legislation that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, identity, and expression, we are not going to be able to mandate any kind of cultural competency training for caregivers," Zinman says. "We have no teeth to advocate around cultural competency care."

Of course, there are always more options for people of means. RainbowVision in Santa Fe, N.M., for example, is an LGBT-centric retirement resort with independent and assisted-living options and amenities such as a Billie Jean King Fitness Center, spa, and tennis court.

Those of considerably less means may qualify for an apartment at the William Way Senior Residences, where eligibility will be financially based and open to straight as well as gay elders.

The design has yet to face any zoning reviews, but as envisioned so far, the 10-story tower will be built behind and above the existing community center, with a separate entrance so the center can continue to operate independently.

Even as Adams and others extol the project's virtues, most details are unresolved (even the number of apartments is undecided) and residency could be three or more years away.

Meanwhile, Joel Sartorius and Bob Melucci have put a deposit down on a space at Foulkeways at Gwynedd, a Quaker-based continuing-care retirement community about 40 minutes from Center City.

Foulkeways does not specifically advertise itself as LGBT-friendly, Sartorius says, "but we know gay people who live there, and a friend who is on the board is lesbian."

"And with the Quaker philosophy of acceptance, I don't think we'll find it difficult to live there."

"Until our country passes legislation that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, identity, and expression, we are not going to be able to mandate any kind of cultural competency training for caregivers," Zinman says. "We have no teeth to advocate around cultural competency care."