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Confab panel will address LGBT aging issues

by Matthew S. Bajko - Bay Area Reporter

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Confab panel will address LGBT aging issues

In 2011 the first of the baby boomers will begin turning 65, and by 2030, it is estimated that the country's elder population will have ballooned to 72.1 million people. Although accurate numbers are hard to come by, LGBT groups estimate that at the height of this aging boom there will be anywhere from 2 to 7 million LGBT elders living in the United States.

Yet little attention has been paid to addressing the needs of aging LGBT people. For much of the last three decades, the gay community's focus has been consumed with battling the AIDS epidemic and winning basic legal rights. End-of-life issues have gotten scant notice.

But that is rapidly changing as HIV has become a manageable disease for many and a new generation of LGBT people grows up in a society where marriage is a possibility and having children is becoming the norm rather than the exception. In short order LGBT Americans are grappling with the same aging concerns as their heterosexual neighbors.

"The aging population in our community and country is growing exponentially. The services needed and demanded will also grow exponentially," said Marcy Adelman, 63, Ph.D., founder of San Francisco's LGBT housing and services agency Openhouse. "Going forward we need to make sure our politicians understand this is an issue for the aging LGBT community as well."

Organizers of this weekend's confab for LGBT elected and appointed officials, taking place in San Francisco for the first time, have convened a panel of experts to specifically address the aging concerns LGBT elders face. Attendees at last year's International Gay and Lesbian Leadership Conference asked for this year's session to be held.

Seth Kilbourn, Openhouse's executive director who will join Adelman on the panel, said LGBT leaders are starting to give greater priority to aging concerns.

"I think more and more LGBT organizations are focused on the needs of LGBT seniors, but we still have a long way to go. I think part of it is demographics. The reality is there are more and more LGBT seniors so there is a growing demand for services specifically targeted at these seniors," said Kilbourn. "With the coming baby boom generation beginning to get older and aging, they are going to be demanding services from the community organizations they have been a part of for a lot of their lives."

The area of elder issues is also offering an avenue for LGBT groups to form stronger ties to non-gay organizations. The needs of aging gay Americans parallel those facing straight baby boomers.

"The demographics of aging heterosexuals are starting to look a little more like us gay people. They have fewer children, are marrying later in life, or are not marrying at all," noted Adelman. "The whole idea of what is community and how we are going to help each other affects people whether they are gay or straight. We have to create housing and communities that work for all ages. I don't see this exclusively as an LGBT aging issue."

Openly gay Colorado state Representative Mark Ferrandino, 32, who will also be on the panel, found common ground with straight allies this year when he helped pass a bill to extend legal protections around inheritance and end-of-life decisions to elderly LGBT residents of the state. Called the Designated Beneficiary Agreement Act, which went into effect July 1, the legislation allows any two unmarried adults to designate each other as beneficiaries by filing out a form with a county clerk. It covers a variety of rights, from the transfer of property and dispersal of life insurance benefits to hospital visitation and the ability to make medical decisions.

Working with his fellow legislators and advocates, Ferrandino was able to fashion a bill that extended rights to LGBT people despite the fact Colorado does not recognize civil unions, domestic partnerships, or same-sex marriages.

"Through a lot of coalition building we came up with this legislation ... so people could be able to care for their loved ones during difficult times," said Ferrandino. "This helps both seniors and low-income people as well as the LGBT population."

Openly gay Campbell Mayor Evan Low, at age 26 one of the country's youngest LGBT politicians, has spent the last four years dealing with aging issues. Prior to being elected to the South Bay town's city council, Low sat on the Santa Clara County Commission on Senior Care.

He said the issues facing seniors are of importance to younger generations.

"We all have relatives going through these things," said Low, whose grandmother is in a nursing home. "We will all be there at some point in time, too. People under 40 or 50 years old may say, 'This is not high on my priority list,' or 'I am not at an age where I have to think about them yet.' You never know though."

Issues such as the fiscal constraints that Social Security will face in future years to addressing older Americans' isolation and disconnect from society should be of concern to younger people, argued Low.

"The conversation may be pretty hard to have. But I think it affects everyone, not just the LGBT community but everyone at large," said Low.

The panel (which will be moderated by this reporter) takes place from 2:15 to 3:45 p.m. Friday, December 4 at the Parc 55 Hotel. The public can buy $99 one-day passes to attend the conference.

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