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Aging gays, lesbians find challenges in assisted-living centers

January 15, 2013 — By Kim Lamb Gregory — Ventura County Star


"Everybody hopes to age in place, but when something happens to one of us, it's going to be very difficult to stay here," Brown said of their Ventura double-wide mobile home.

They feel certain Brown's sister would care for one or both of them, should it become necessary, but they realize a skilled-nursing facility or assisted-living center is always a possibility.

Neither would hide their sexual identity at such a place, but "I don't think we'd run up the rainbow flag," Taylor joked.

Brown and Taylor are aware that many lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people who came out of the closet go right back in when they need elder care.

"Sometimes they're just playing it safe, but there is a shift that takes place," said Bay Area filmmaker Stu Maddux, who created an award-winning documentary called "Gen Silent" about the aging LGBT community.

The Ventura County Area Agency on Aging hosted the Ventura County premiere of "Gen Silent" on Friday at the Ventura Senior Recreation Center. Brown, who is Region 5 director of the Congress of California Seniors, sat on a discussion panel after the documentary.

The film follows the lives of six LGBT seniors who need care but are afraid to ask for help or have few friends or family members to care for them. Some find themselves hiding their sexuality when they enter assisted-living or skilled-nursing facilities.

"We've learned the bullies who are there at the beginning of life are there at the end of life," Maddux said. "This time, you can't run and you can't fight."

Maddux said the bullies sometimes are the caregivers. Other times, they are the fellow residents.

"Just like high school, there are cliques. There's definitely a hierarchy," said Robert Goldberg, director of Cypress Place Senior Living in Ventura.

The center has not had any LGBT residents, to Goldberg's knowledge, but there's a caveat.

"Because we've come across so many different individuals and so many people live in assisted living, it's not going to be all that uncommon that there are going to be gay, lesbian and transgender individuals who reside in assisted living but have not said so," he said.

Goldberg said no one has made any inquiries about LGBT issues, but he thinks it's a discussion that needs to happen. He said he is always concerned about staff and resident sensitivity to diversity.

Lori Bliss, care coordinator of Senior Concerns in Thousand Oaks, hopes to bring the film to the east county because she knows LGBT adults often live alone, do not have children and may not be on good terms with family members.

"There have been many situations where I've had seniors without family or children who are very low-income and seeking out what resources they can qualify for," she said. "I don't want to embarrass someone or overstep a boundary."

Growing population

The senior population is growing, and with it, those with alternative lifestyles.

On Jan. 1, 2011, the first of the 76 million baby boomers began turning 65. The number of LGBT Americans 65 or older was estimated in 2010 at 1.5 million and was projected to reach at least 3 million by 2030.

"The baby boomers are bringing huge numbers of people into retirement in a way our country really hasn't seen before," said Hilary Meyer, director of the Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders nonprofit group. "So with that extraordinary population demographic are also a number of folks self-identified as LGBT and are out of the closet. With that is the expectation around competent care and proper services."

Six LGBT and senior advocacy groups conducted a nationwide study from October 2009 to June 2010 to determine what long-term care was like for LGBT seniors. "LGBT Older Adults in Long-term Care Facilities: Stories from the Field" suggested that more public education was needed.

Of the 769 people who completed the online survey, 284 identified themselves as LGBT older adults and 485 as friends, family members, social or legal service providers or simply "other."

The comments in the report ranged from staff harassment to refusal of care. Altogether, 328 people reported 853 instances of mistreatment. The reports came from across the United States, including California.

"Within the next two weeks I will be going into assisted living," wrote a Sylmar man, 73. "Due to my financial situation, I will have to share a room with another man. The thought of going back into a closet is making me ill."

A woman from Carlsbad wrote about lesbian friends Vera and Zayda, who had been together for 58 years until Vera developed Alzheimer's disease and had to be moved into assisted living.

"Zayda could barely trust family or neighbors with the truth, let along strangers, so she and Vera became 'sisters,' " the commenter wrote.

An 83-year-old gay man from San Francisco described having to frequently take his partner out of a skilled nursing facility to get him a shower because the aides said they were "uncomfortable" helping a gay man bathe.

Can't we all get along?

Pat McGinnis, executive director of California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, said the state is more LGBT-friendly in general, but more education about LGBT seniors is necessary.

"It's a major challenge," McGinnis said. "Not just for LGBT (seniors) but for people who want to smoke or have a drink or have sex with a partner in a facility. You go into a nursing home or facility, it's not supposed to mean your civil rights are taken away."

Meyer said caregivers may come from a country or religious background that does not accept the LGBT lifestyle.

"There are biases across the globe, starting with the United States," Meyer said. "Regardless of your personal beliefs, you're here to provide the best level of care to the people who walk through those doors."

Long-term care facilities must include LGBT issues in their competency training under a 2008 California law.

Susan White Wood, director of program development for the Ventura County Area Agency on Aging, said she arranged to bring "Gen Silent" to Ventura because she wanted to start a conversation about LGBT seniors.

"When I talk to people above 80 about this project, they look at me like I'm crazy," Wood said. "It's a different culture, a different generation. My mom's generation is the 'don't ask, don't tell' generation."

"We're much more paranoid about it," said Ventura therapist Tom Archbald, 72. "I think younger gay men and women are so much freer of internalized homophobia than we are. ... I grew up in a ... conservative family. I heard criticism of gay people as I grew up. I didn't come out until I was 30."

Archbald's partner of 20 years, retired physician Manuel Marquez, 56, doesn't plan to tangle with intolerance.

"I'm fairly assertive and Tom is, too," Marquez said. "We would only choose a facility that would be willing to accept us as a gay couple."

Senior advocacy groups like AARP, the American Society on Aging and the Congress of California Seniors have all joined to promote LGBT senior rights.

Connie Baer, 75, lost her partner, Rita Marsh, in December. The two were together for more than 27 years and married in 2008 during the window when gay marriage was legal in California.

The Ventura former attorney said she was pleased with the treatment and respect she and Marsh received when Marsh entered the Coastal View Healthcare Center in Ventura after strokes and bladder cancer.

"I used the word 'wife' and not 'partner,' so people's ears got used to it," Baer said. "Mainly I just ran into curiosity. People just sort of blink and shut up. Then they will ask questions. I haven't run into any hostility."

Filmmaker Maddux said he believes that with the aging of America, we're going to have to all get along.

"We're all in the sandbox together at the end third of life," he said.

"Due to my financial situation, I will have to share a room with another man. The thought of going back into a closet is making me ill."