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Unique Housing Challenges for Seniors

HRC - Working for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Equal Rights

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Unique Housing Challenges for Seniors

Lack of Family Help

While heterosexual seniors often rely on their spouses or children to help them, many lesbian and gay seniors find themselves without either resource, says Steven Karpiak, executive director of Pride Senior Network.

In fact, when Senior Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE) conducted focus groups in New York City, they found that approximately two-thirds of the lesbian and gay seniors interviewed lived alone - a higher rate of isolation than among the general elderly population. Other research has found similar results.

The need for assisted housing for lesbian and gay seniors, therefore, may be even greater than it is for heterosexual seniors. Yet here, too, we face some unique challenges.

Shortage of Welcoming Housing

With all the media attention that lesbian and gay retirement communities have received in recent years, you may think there are plenty of welcoming places to go.

But the fact is that there are only a few. Most welcoming retirement communities are still on the drawing board - and, in many cases, plans have been stalled because of an inability to attract the money needed to build them, according to Terry Kaelber, executive director of SAGE, which is trying to build an assisted living facility for gay and lesbian seniors in New York City.

"I think one of the reasons for that is because gay and lesbian seniors, in general, are an invisible population and because of that it's difficult to get hard-core marketing studies that really mean anything to mainstream developers," says Kaelber.

Moreover, even if all the planned communities were built, most of these developments would be very expensive to live in - costing more than many of today's gay seniors could or would pay.

There also are ambivalent reports about whether lesbian and gay seniors even want housing targeted specifically to them. While many retirement centers historically have been organized by niche groups (with some, for example, targeted to Catholics and others to Jews), many lesbian and gay seniors report little interest in segregated housing and a preference to remain in their own community near friends and loved ones.

"The reality is, most older people don't live in retirement communities, period. So there isn't any reason to believe that would be particularly different in the gay community,'' says David Aronstein, a social worker and managing partner of Stonewall Communities, a project to build gay- and lesbian-friendly senior housing in Boston. "One thing that came out in our focus groups is that people wanted it to be gay-managed [and] owned and predominantly occupied by gays, but people were very clear that it would be fine if there were straight people who lived there, too. People have wide friendship networks that aren't always exclusively gay."

While there are a few gay or lesbian retirement communities in Florida and the Southwest, there has not been a rush to build retirement homes at such gay and lesbian vacation spots, such as Key West, Fla., or Provincetown, Mass. One reason, Aronstein suggests is the distance those spots are from the nearest medical facility.

But Still Some "Spontaneous Combustion."

Still, Marcy Adelman, a San Francisco psychologist and founder of the planned Rainbow Adult Community Housing, notes there are increasing incidents of "spontaneous combustion" where small groups of friends have rented apartments or purchased units next to each other in RV parks or rural developments to create their own lesbian and gay senior housing communities.

Nancy Nystrom, a sociologist at Michigan State University, belongs to one such group. "I do research with older women," she says, "and I found several collective groups of women who have bought homes in residential areas and then just knocked down the common fences. Nobody knows about them because they're not advertising."

Her group of eight women, ranging in age from 55 to 71, plans to build a housing cluster of five to seven manufactured houses interconnected through a community common house at its center on a five-acre plot outside Seattle. After paying their share of the land purchase, about $50,000, and the purchase of their home, the women will have to pay only $517 per month in upkeep.

"The theory is the more interactive and more interconnected the women are with each other and helping each other out, the longer they can put off the need for full assisted living," says Nystrom. When a resident dies, her share in the housing cluster passes on to the group, which can bring in another woman. Nystrom hopes the project, which is not up and running yet, will serve as a model for other groups of lesbian and gay seniors.

Fear of Discrimination and Harassment

The greatest obstacle for lesbian and gay seniors, however, appears to be an unseen one: fear of discrimination and harassment in mainstream housing facilities. To what extent it exists is difficult to determine, according to most experts. But there is anecdotal evidence that discrimination exists. For example:

  • Some assisted living facilities have refused to allow lesbian and gay couples to move in together, insisting that they separate at a time when they are more likely to need each other than ever before.
  • Some nursing home staff members have discriminated against people they know or perceive to be lesbian or gay. For example, an aide in a Virginia nursing home refused to bathe a lesbian.

Yet perhaps the most common problem is one of isolation and loneliness, brought on by a fear of discrimination.

"The major struggle that older lesbians and gay men have in long-term care facilities is the need to remain closeted out of fear of retaliation and out of an instinct of self-preservation," says Doni Gewirtzman, a Lambda Legal staff attorney who specializes in age discrimination.

In part, Gewirtzman says, this is because the current generation of lesbian and gay seniors came of age in a time of "officially sanctioned homophobia and abuse of gay people," and the coping strategy that many of them learned was just to remain in the closet.

The result, however, is that many lesbian and gay seniors find themselves unable to freely discuss what most people talk about when they get old -- namely, the people they love.

The rights of elderly gays and lesbians varies from state to state - even county to county, says Gewirtzman, noting that most nursing home operations are regulated at the state level.

To find out more about laws governing the rights of seniors in assisted living facilities and nursing homes, contact The Administration on Aging, within the Department of Health and Human Services.

The Administration on Aging
330 Independence Ave., S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20201
Phone: 202/619-7501

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