Creative tools help LGBTQ seniors fight isolation

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday January 27, 2021
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Brian Lynch sits with his cat, Lil Guy, and holds one of his favorite paintings. His other works are on the two walls behind him. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Brian Lynch sits with his cat, Lil Guy, and holds one of his favorite paintings. His other works are on the two walls behind him. Photo: Rick Gerharter

Isolation was already an epidemic among seniors, disproportionately affecting LGBTQs, before COVID-19. Now, LGBTQ seniors and agencies serving them are finding ways to survive what for many is their second fight with the effects of a health crisis.

Brian Lynch, a 67-year-old gay man who lives in the Castro neighborhood, said he first got involved with Openhouse after the leading service provider for San Francisco's LGBTQ seniors reached out to him.

Now, a volunteer comes to visit him weekly.

"My right leg was amputated and my left one is in pretty bad shape," Lynch, who uses a wheelchair, told the Bay Area Reporter. "I have Charcot in my ankle, which is like all your bones in your ankle breaking.

"They have this thing called a Friendly Visitor and so a young person named Ian comes over and does the things I can't," Lynch said. "Then we sit and talk. [They're] the nicest."

He was referring to Ian MacGregor, a queer person who told the B.A.R. that they first connected with Lynch through Openhouse at the end of 2019 or the beginning of 2020. MacGregor's partner, a 23-year-old, also connected with a senior through Openhouse.

"I moved to the Castro from Berkeley two and a half years ago and I knew one of the things I wanted to do was to connect with my neighbors here in the Castro who represent different generations," MacGregor, 24, said. "As a queer person myself, I wanted to explore connections with people I'd not have the opportunity to before. I like cats; he has a cat. He's an artist; I try to surround myself with artists. He lives in the neighborhood. The process was pretty straightforward."

Karyn Skultety, Ph.D., a bi woman who is the outgoing executive director of Openhouse, said she thinks senior isolation "is a huge issue."

"Maybe the good news — if there is such a thing — is that isolation was such a big issue for LGBTQ seniors at the beginning of the pandemic that it was already something we were attuned to: knowing that people needed more than a typical senior model of relying on family and spouses," she told the B.A.R. "I think we have done a good job in proactively establishing connections with people, before things got really bad."

Skultety, noting that "when you feel isolated, it's hard to reach out to others," said that Openhouse took the first step at the start of the COVID-19 restrictions by reaching out to seniors to ask if they were OK.

"Some people said 'call me next week.' For people who say 'no thanks, I'm done,' we check in again," Skultety said. "It doesn't solve every problem, but it's building that connection."

Openhouse also took the step of creating 600 gift baskets for LGBTQ seniors who live in San Francisco who'd been going to Openhouse's programs before COVID struck.

"The gift baskets were important," she said. "The real power of the gift baskets is having a staff member in front of your door, saying, 'I miss you. You're important to us. You matter.' The feedback we've gotten is that they loved the stuff in the basket, 'I loved that you visited, that I'm not forgotten.'"

Lynch receives the gift baskets himself.

"The last one, the Christmas one, was hysterical," he said. "I have a cat — a little guy who rules the roost around here — and the gift basket had a lot of stuff for the cat, but it was all stuff I needed. A lot of effort went into it."

MacGregor said Lynch has been wonderful to have in his life; Lynch gave MacGregor several of his paintings, they said.

"Things that frankly are so little effort for me make his life a lot less frustrating," MacGregor said. "It's been one of the most fulfilling things I've been able to do in the last year."

Openhouse also does 300 to 500 support calls "depending upon the week," Skultety said, adding that people are still virtually engaging with groups that used to meet in-person.

"Some of our groups are as big or bigger than before. It's taken time to get there but that's the case," Skultety said, though she noted that "trans, people of color, and marginalized people in the community are less likely to engage with those [virtual] programs."

This is "because they are more likely to lack access to technology and experience poverty at a higher rate than other LGBTQ seniors," Skultety clarified. "Technology access highlights the inequities that exist in our city already."

Skultety stated that when the pandemic began last year, isolation and food insecurity were identified as the top challenges.

"Many seniors were relying on the food/meals offered at senior centers, churches, community organizations, and senior housing as part of their weekly plan to have enough food to eat. As these locations were forced to stop offering on-site programming and food, many seniors found themselves without enough to eat. Early on, we started buying groceries and meals for seniors connected to Openhouse who found themselves in this position," Skultety stated.

"The other challenge was social isolation which has, of course, only worsened over time," she added. "We could see a difference even from the first week of the stay at home order to the second. We started making calls out to our community members immediately — rather than waiting for people to reach out for connection, we made calls proactively. The challenge with feeling isolated is that it makes it harder to reach out to others, which in turn only worsens isolation. It's a vicious cycle that we tried to prevent early on by setting up weekly phone calls with LGBTQ seniors."

Openhouse, according to its most recent publicly-available IRS form 990, had total expenses of $2.2 million in Fiscal Year 2018-2019. That year the organization took in $5.2 million.

Forty-five percent of Openhouse's funding comes from the City and County of San Francisco, according to Skultety.

Multiple layers of isolation

Larry Nelson, who has been a fixture in San Francisco's LGBTQ community for decades (he created the 2018 "Generations of Strength" San Francisco Pride theme), said that there are multiple layers to the challenge of senior isolation.

"There is more now, during COVID, especially in the gay community," Nelson, who is in his 60s, said.

"Sometimes, when someone comes out, no matter what age there is isolation," he explained. "Then they build a chosen family, as we always say, but then that family starts dying off, and then they're isolated again."

Nelson said many gay men who were traumatized by decades of the AIDS epidemic are being triggered again by COVID, not only because both are viral health crises, but because many people lost their chosen families decades ago.

"There's a gay adolescence. No matter what age you come out, you're an adolescent. When AIDS hit it went from bars to community organizing, to discussion groups, all of that," Nelson said. "The issue with many gay, senior men is that many have been isolated since they lost their friends to AIDS. Then new friends came who died, or moved away. So there's many arms and tentacles to the isolation thing. There's always isolation of seniors no matter who or where they are.

"We have really bad PTSD, which is almost unbearable for gay men in their 50s to 70s. Panic attacks. But even though we have all that, we have some experience about how to break out of isolation," he added.

Nelson said he started a part-time job at the SF ReServe Employment Program, a nonprofit organization that helps people age 60 and up, and persons living with disabilities who are 18 and older, find part-time employment.

"Part of our program is getting computers and iPads to people, to create engagement," Nelson said. "Always use the term 'engagement.' Tech outreach — teaching them how to connect with family, how to do Zoom, setting them up so that they can work from home."

SF ReServe, which is based on a national model, has succeeded at getting 65 people over the age of 60 placed, though some people hired before the pandemic have since been furloughed.

According to Nelson, SF ReServe was involved in technology training for some of the Openhouse senior clients, as part of a partnership between the two organizations.

"What does that do?" Nelson asked. "It takes people out of isolation."