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Guest Opinion: Stop signing up for ageism

by Karyn Skultety

Karyn Skultety, Ph.D., greeted Pridegoers on the Openhouse motorized cable car during the 2019 San Francisco Pride parade. Photo: Saul Bromberger
Karyn Skultety, Ph.D., greeted Pridegoers on the Openhouse motorized cable car during the 2019 San Francisco Pride parade. Photo: Saul Bromberger  

As I prepare for my last day as the executive director of Openhouse on May 31, I am left speechless by the honor it has been to do this job. There will never be adequate words to say how deeply appreciative I am of the trust that the board of directors, staff, the community, and most importantly, the LGBTQ+ seniors of San Francisco and beyond have put in me. I am grateful that I have the opportunity to say thank you to each of you who have supported the work of Openhouse in creating housing, services and community for LGBTQ+ seniors and for the ways you have allowed me to lead and follow your lead in making that mission come alive. And so, as I prepare for my last days in this role, I hope you will allow me one more opportunity to ask for your help as we continue to work toward an LGBTQ+ community that we can all thrive in at every age. As I have said many times and I will say many more — we cannot do it without you.

The first thing I would ask is that you stop signing up for ageism. What is ageism? It's the idea that there is us and them ... and them is everyone older than you! It's the idea that as "they" get older, people become less valuable to our communities than those who are younger and it's OK to forget them or leave them behind. Unfortunately, ageism is alive and well in LGBTQ+ communities, including right here in San Francisco. I will never forget when a gay man in his 80s described for me the difference between how he felt "alive and seen" when attending Openhouse activities and then "slowly became invisible" as he walked down the street toward home. The greatest way we can fight this experience is by embracing our own aging. I recently declared myself to be 45 on my birthday — and we must each declare our age as simply a part of who we are instead of something to hide or use to "other" those around us. The fact is that aging, living well into your 70s or 80s, is a privilege and one that is not afforded everyone in our community. Let us remember all in our community who we have lost well before earning the title of senior — from the millions who died in the AIDS crisis to the many transgender members of our community (especially women of color) who are dying far too young today.

Next, I ask that you not only think about your own aging, but think about the ways that our community is better, stronger, richer and more powerful when seniors are a part of it. Far too often, people look at organizations that work with seniors and think of them as addressing needs for individual people as they age. While it is true that organizations like Openhouse and many others aim to ensure that each senior has the housing, services, and resources they need, the impact of this work is not just individual, it is community-wide. When we ensure seniors have what they need, it means they are staying active in our communities and in our ongoing work in the fight for social justice. It means that our communities are not just powered by the brilliance of our youth, they are powered by the resilience of the generations who came before them. It means that across generations, we are handing down and passing up lessons on how we continue the fight for our collective freedom and we are building a community fueled by authentic intergenerational power.

If you can truly believe that aging is not about someone else, but about you too, you will start to change. If you can truly believe that communities are better and more powerful when they are fueled by LGBTQ+ people of all generations, then you will go out of your way to seek connections and relationships with seniors. You will not accept the way our current aging systems of care operate and you will fight for change. You will go out of your way to thank the seniors in your life for the privileges you enjoy today. You will remember that even the most amazing senior organizations (like Openhouse) can become another closet unless people of all ages open the door and come in.

I am so appreciative of you joining me on the journey at Openhouse the last four-plus years and I leave knowing that we continue this work together. We are ALL building the community that we will grow old in — so let us build it with pride, respect, joy, authenticity, and deep love.

Thank you for the tremendous honor and opportunity to serve our community.

All my love and big hugs.

Karyn Skultety, Ph.D., is the outgoing executive director of Openhouse.

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