Options for LGBT retirees

  • by Ralph Harris
  • Wednesday August 13, 2014
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It's not just about marriage equality anymore. Progress for the LGBT community is usually measured by two criteria: public opinion polls about gay acceptance in the general population; and, the number of jurisdictions which recognize our right to be treated equally when it comes to marriage laws and benefits.

Traditionally "old and gay" meant "old and invisible." Or worse. Many providers of services for people over 60 were cruel and even punishing to clients who were perceived as LGBT. Years ago, the New York Times reported on the mistreatment, neglect, and denial of services from retirement communities, assisted living facilities, and nursing homes ("Fearing Isolation in Old Age, Gay Generation Seeks Haven," October 21, 1999).

In the past, gay partners were not allowed to share an apartment in senior residences. In many instances, according to the Times article, gay people were totally isolated in these facilities because they were shunned and shamed by other residents and patients. Staff members, too, might refuse to provide care and proper assistance to "those kind of people." But there are now pockets of great change and our future is a lot brighter.

Marcy Adelman, Ph.D., a lesbian activist in San Francisco, started Openhouse in 1998 with the long-term goal of developing housing and social support services for LGBT seniors. Its long-awaited project is under construction at 55 Laguna Street and the first phase should be ready for residents at the end of 2015.

Last week, Openhouse and two other progressive retirement communities were cited by the Commonwealth Club as forerunners in creating safe, secure, caring, and accepting environments for gay people as they age.

This is a big deal that the respected Commonwealth Club is giving public attention to the needs and civil rights of LGBT seniors. This club is the oldest and largest public affairs forum in the United States, according to its website.

The club is devoting August to programming on LGBT issues, including seniors. Having speakers from Openhouse and two other gay-inclusive retirement communities – the Sequoias-San Francisco and Fountaingrove Lodge in Santa Rosa – at its podium portrayed examples of breaking down barriers toward achieving full human equality for LGBT seniors. Recognition of our past struggles and current needs in this prestigious and influential forum is a giant step toward getting the attention that marriage equality did.

Adelman and the panel, of which I was a member, encouraged the audience to consider various options that are now available for LGBT retirement living. Openhouse will be directed toward lower income individuals and couples. Fountaingrove Lodge offers rural living in a new, upscale, predominately gay environment. The Sequoias is a diverse community with a sizable gay population within walking distance of Davies Symphony Hall and the Opera House, and in addition to independent living apartments has skilled nursing, assisted living, and memory care facilities on the same property.

Only in recent years can the formerly "old and invisible" gay senior have realistic hope for finding positive, supportive, and inclusive services that are targeted to offer him or her an extended lifetime of rich and fulfilling experiences and friendships. We often do not have the family support network to take care of us when we are sick or slowing down as we get older.

The audience was largely people of pre-retirement age who asked questions about how and when they should start thinking about entering a retirement community, and how to plan for it financially. John Kennedy said he looked at a number of retirement facilities for several years before he and his partner, Bill, decided to move to Fountaingrove Lodge last November. Kennedy encouraged the audience to start early and learn about all the choices that are available. Some places offer only senior housing but no added services. Others may include, for a monthly fee, comprehensive on-site medical care, meals, housekeeping, entertainment, lectures and classes, counseling with a professional nutritionist, physical and occupational therapy, travel opportunities in the community van, and fitness programs specially designed for older bodies, like yoga, balance and fall prevention, Tai chi, line dancing, and workouts with a personal trainer.

I talked about how I was mugged near Dolores Park and suffered traumatic brain injury, broken bones, and severe internal damage. In 10 seconds my life changed from being a healthy, independent 65 year old. For the next four years physical and occupational therapists had to teach me how to use my hands and fingers, and how to walk again. Being disabled during those years made me realize that I never had a back-up plan and that I knew nothing about the supportive services that could help me in the right senior living community. When I later moved to the Sequoias I had nurses available 24 hours, and a gay-friendly social network in the same building where I was served restaurant quality meals and had live music, lectures and movies in a 96-seat auditorium.

Matile Rothschild, who resides at the Fountaingrove Lodge, and Sue Parsell, who lives at the Sequoias and is a board member and vice president overseeing resident committees there, both agreed that the younger a person is the easier it will be to make the adjustment into a senior care community. When Parsell's partner of 45 years died, she realized that living at home would not provide the security and social network she would probably need in future years. As a former nurse, Parsell knows of too many seniors who became isolated when they became infirm or their friends died or moved away.

Rothschild has only one regret – that she did not move to a gay supportive retirement community earlier in her life. She and her partner, Joan Zimmerman, have made so many new friends at Fountaingrove, and they have a richer life than they ever dreamed would be possible when they were living in the former home they loved. Though Zimmerman is still an avid gardener, both women are thrilled to give up the responsibilities of maintaining a house.

"Everyday feels like I am on vacation at a luxury resort where professional staff takes care of all my needs. Why didn't Joan and I think of this sooner?" Rothschild asked.

All the panelists said they would not have chosen a facility that did not have a strong gay population and open acceptance.

Parsell talked about "the wonderful diversity of people at the Sequoias, including LGBT employees and the type of straight people who say, who cares?"

The final questions came from a woman in the audience who was concerned about meeting the cost of care in places that cater to the gay community. Entry fees start around $225,000 at Fountaingrove and about $142,000 at the Sequoias, which is a nonprofit organization. Openhouse will be the only LGBT-oriented place in the Bay Area that offers housing to low-income people when it opens next year.

Many people worry about what will happen to them if they deplete their savings during a long retirement. Future inflation could double or triple the cost of living in their later years. Life Care is a provision offered by a few retirement communities that is almost like long term insurance protection. With a written contract from a Life Care community, a resident is assured that if their personal assets drop below a given amount the facility will provide financial assistance to care for them for the rest of their life. At the Sequoias-San Francisco the financial assistance plan kicks in when residents' personal assets drop to between $60,000 and 100,000, and even pays for medical expenses and potential higher levels of care like assisted living or skilled nursing.

Adelman said she tried for years to get developers to build facilities that are affordable for middle-income seniors in our community. But so far funding has not been available, and this is a very big niche that everyone recognizes must be filled for LGBT baby boomers who are now considering where they will go when they are old and gay. In the right location, they can even become older and gayer!


Ralph Harris lives at the Sequoias-San Francisco.