Saturday, September 20, 2008

When I Grow Old...

...I wonder if I will be in this situation.

Bob McCoy is a youthful, active 78-year-old. He sings in his church choir, takes a weekly computer class, and regularly attends social gatherings organized by a gay senior citizens group in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lives. But McCoy worries about a day when he can no longer care for himself: he has no close family, no partner, and he's outlived most of his friends. "I'm used to having friends I can call up and say, 'Let's go to [a movie],'" he says. "But now there's nobody to call."
Newly engaged, Jim Fetterman, 62, and Ilde Gonzalez-Rivera, 56, look forward to growing old together at their home in Queens, N.Y., where they share a garden and a green Cadillac. But the couple isn't sure if or when they'll be able to marry. Their house is in Rivera's name, but because the couple can't legally wed in New York, Fetterman won't automatically inherit it, should his partner die. And even though they are registered domestic partners in New York City, neither man will have access to the other's Social Security, because the federal government doesn't recognize their relationship. "It's not something we like to think about, but there's a certain amount of anxiety that comes with not having those things," says Fetterman.

These are typical faces of the gay and aging—a growing population often overlooked by mainstream advocates. Gerontologists haven't traditionally viewed sexual orientation as relevant to their work—and, according to a study by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, most national health surveys of elderly citizens fail to assess sexual orientation. But gay seniors confront unique challenges: they're twice as likely as straights to live alone, and 10 times less likely to have a caretaker should they fall ill. Older gay men are at high risk for HIV, and many suffer the psychological effects of losing friends to the AIDS crisis. (See our report on HIV and aging.) Many face discrimination in medical and social services, and on top of it all, they're less likely to have health insurance: one survey, by the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law, at UCLA, estimates that gay seniors are half as likely to have coverage as their straight counterparts.

"In many ways, this population is a mirror opposite of what the mainstream aging community looks like," says Karen Taylor, director of advocacy and training for the New York-based Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Elders, or SAGE, the nation's oldest senior network. "The average senior in the United States lives with one other person; two-thirds of LGBT seniors live alone. If you don't have those informal support networks built into your life, then everything else becomes a bigger issue. Who forces you to go to the doctor? What happens if you fall?"

As this community grows, in both population and visibility, those questions are becoming harder to ignore. Over the next 25 years, persons in America who are 65 and older are expected to grow from about 12 to 20 percent of the total population, and various estimates indicate that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered individuals will comprise 7 to 10 percent of that senior population. Meanwhile, like the Baby Boomers of all stripes, aging gays and lesbians are radically redefining what it means to be a senior—and how they fit into the larger community. They're coming out of the closet, vocalizing their experiences and needs, and, most importantly, demanding public recognition. "If you go back 40 years, there were virtually no openly gay seniors," says Gary Gates, a senior research fellow and demographer at the Williams Institute. "But now you have a large enough group that people are paying attention."

This year, SAGE is celebrating its 30th anniversary, and running an ad campaign in New York to raise awareness about their constituents. And when the organization holds its national conference on aging next month, it will be sponsored for the first time by the AARP. Just that acknowledgement, say advocates, is huge: with 40 million members, the AARP is considered one of America's most powerful lobbying groups—and an influential voice on health care and social policy. "When we look to the future, we know we cannot progress if we don't bring in these other communities," says the Washington-based organization's chief diversity officer, E. Percil Stanford. "The [gay and lesbian] community is quite often invisible and overlooked."

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Blogger Bernie said...

I recently heard some gay seniors talking about how isolated and alone they felt. They talked about how they had spent their lives working for gay rights and trying to make the world more tolerant for the next generation, only to find themselves shoved aside and ignored by that same younger, 20 and 30-something generation that now had no use for them.

Someone accurately stated that working to make the gay "community" more inclusive of its older members is everyone's responsibility and that if younger folks don't take an active role, they may one day wake up and find themselves in the very same boat.

5:29 PM, September 20, 2008  
Blogger Chet said...

This is asubject that isn't often reflected on however; it is certain ly a subject that needs to be addressed by the Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Generation X and possibly Genteration Y.

Getting older is suppose to be a wonderful event that we all hope to someday enjoy and with that thought in place we would also like to grow old with some dignity and grace, but for many of the elder members of our community this is what they are seeing, life has become a nightmare for many of the elders.

Insurance, property, earnings and domestic partnership is important to most of us and many of us have secured these things in one form or another however, this can be removed for us in a moments notice if we have jointly commited ourselves to a life partner in hopes that he or she will be entitled to these things in the event of our untimely death or demise. We are damn near invisible in the courtroom.

The state has placed provisions here and many of the couples have been able to lay a plan and know that their partner will be taken care of although getting the entire lock, stock and barrel can be a tedious fight.

We need to embrace our gay elders, show support and get an understanding after all they are the ones whom fought for eqaulity, freedom and a place of our own.

8:45 PM, September 20, 2008  
Blogger Curious said...

I don't know how many neices and nephews you have, or have other family members with young children. I don't know how many close freinds or neighbors you have who will be there for you in a crisis or medical emergency. But I am sure that as long as you don't cut off the people who are around you and may even love you for being you, you won't have to worry about being alone, about being overlooked, about being invisible.

9:57 PM, September 20, 2008  
Blogger Joey Bahamas said...

Interesting article and food for thought. I've started saving and my 401K so that financially I will be stable. As far as having a partner etc. who knows. I'm going to do my part to make sure I can either take care of myself or afford to be taken care of. Luv!!


10:45 AM, September 21, 2008  
Blogger yet another black guy said...

oddly enough i was just thinking about this as i was reading a report in the local gay newspaper touting a new GLBT Seniors social activity initiative promoted by a local club. i thought about maybe volunteering to maybe spend some time with them.

12:03 AM, September 22, 2008  
Blogger E said...

curious brings up an interesting point...oddly enough, my siblings and I aren't married and don't have any kids (yet) potentially we could all be growing up old alone. But I guess as long as we don't lose contact with others, there should be someone important in our lives that'll help.

Definitely an interesting read.

2:42 PM, September 27, 2008  

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