Durham County

How LGBT elders and their advocates are keeping the closet door open in retirement

“When I retired I stopped wearing Western clothing, Christopher Ross, left, said after a portrait session with his partner Allan Keech, left, at their home in Durham. They will soon be living in the Village Hearth Cohousing community, to be built next year. It is a place where members of the LGBT community will be welcome among their peers and allies.
“When I retired I stopped wearing Western clothing, Christopher Ross, left, said after a portrait session with his partner Allan Keech, left, at their home in Durham. They will soon be living in the Village Hearth Cohousing community, to be built next year. It is a place where members of the LGBT community will be welcome among their peers and allies. ctoth@heraldsun.com

Christopher Ross and Allan Keech, both 68, are longtime partners who are approaching a time in their lives when, as Ross puts it, “it’s important to know our neighbors.”

They face the normal vulnerabilities of aging – such as health challenges – but as members of the LGBT community, they also must cope with a legacy of discrimination that often makes finding a community of elders difficult for them.

“Having looked at other retirement venues ... generally speaking, they have not had the education to deal with or cope with LGBT people,” Keech said. “A lot of gay people tend to go back in the closet when they go into these facilities,” because they fear being ostracized, he said.

Ross and Keech are by no means alone. “We know people who live in nursing homes and facilities who are afraid to let people know they are LGBT,” said Les Geller of SAGE Raleigh, a program of the LGBT Center of Raleigh. “It’s very common,” Geller said.

Aging members of the LGBT community “are more likely to live alone and with thinner support networks,” according to Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE), a New York advocacy organization. They also face higher disability rates, higher poverty rates, and mental health concerns related to a lifetime of discrimination,” the SAGE website states.

SAGE continues: “Location-related barriers, coupled with stigma and discrimination, can make it difficult for LGBT older people in many parts of the country to find the LGBT-friendly community supports they need to age successfully and avoid social isolation.” The organization estimates that 3 million LGBT people in the United States are age 55 and older.

The UNC School of Social Work in 2013 did a needs assessment of the aging LGBT community in the Triangle. Among the findings from that survey: 46 percent of participants reported they had experienced harassment or worse because of their sexual orientation. Sixty-two percent of respondents wanted more health services geared to LGBT adults, with 80 percent expressing interest in LGBT retirement homes.

Ross and Keech lived in New York before moving to southern Virginia. To avoid the social isolation that the SAGE organization speaks of, they plan to settle permanently in Durham as members of the Village Hearth Cohousing community. Village Hearth Cohousing will be built in northern Durham County for LGBT seniors and people who are friendly toward them.

Even with the milestone Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage, prejudice in retirement communities can manifest in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. When LGBT people enter nursing homes, there is often an undercurrent of gossip, Ross said. “As progressive as we like to think that we are, the old stereotypes exist” and in many ways “we are still primitive,” he said.

Caregivers in nursing homes may not have the training to help LGBT people feel comfortable, particularly those who need help with bathing and other daily activities, said Tim Johnston, director of national projects for SAGE. “Even just one simple instance where they feel uncomfortable as an LGBT person might be enough to get them to go back into the closet,” Johnston said.

Homophobia also is an obstacle to creating a support group, said Judy Kinney, executive director of the Durham Center for Senior Life. The senior center had a support group for LGBTQ people, and Kinney would like to work with the LGBT Center of Durham to resurrect that group and reach out to LGBT elders. “Because of homophobia ... just getting people together sometimes is a challenge for older adults,” Kinney said.

Looking for solutions

Advocacy groups and members of the LGBT community are working to address the problem of housing for their elder members.

Pat McAulay and her wife, Margaret Roesch, are the driving force behind Village Hearth Cohousing, an alternative to traditional retirement communities. The project has completed the rezoning process before the Durham City Council, and organizers are continuing to build membership to get a construction loan, McAulay said. The community plans to have 20 or 21 households, organizers say.

“The idea of being in a community of people who care about us and about whom we care is so attractive to us,” McAulay said. “We’ve lived in places and not known our neighbors at all and that’s very sad. ... This is combating that isolation that would only get worse as we age,” she said.

SAGE has several initiatives that address housing. The organization is building housing for the LGBTQ community and also sponsors SAGE Care, which trains care providers in how to be more inclusive toward the community. SAGE has trained more than 16,000 people and given the training to more than 100 agencies, Johnston said.

“A huge part of what we’re doing is to make sure all existing providers in all communities are LGBT-affirming,” Johnston said.

In January 2016, SAGE Raleigh, an affiliate of SAGE and a program of the Raleigh LGBT Center, started the SAGE Raleigh Housing Initiative. The program is exploring buying or building affordable housing and market-rate units for seniors, Geller said. The center conducted a feasibility study and found the need for 200 affordable housing units and 700 market-rate units, Geller said. The area in that study included Durham and Orange counties, he said.

The Raleigh center has been offering training to nursing homes and other facilities for about six months. Some facilities welcome the training, some do not, Geller said. No organization can build enough affordable housing, but SAGE Raleigh wants to make sure staff in retirement facilities have some training in dealing with elder members of the LGBT community, he said.

McAulay said she and her wife came out in their 40s and do not relish having to go back into the closet because “we took so long to come out.” With Village Hearth Cohousing, “we want to be proactive about our aging situation. ... So we’re creating this community that will have elements that will help us stay in our homes longer than if we were in a single-family home, isolated from the community,” McAulay said.

Ross and Keech are looking forward to moving into a place where they have a sense of community and autonomy. “I am going there to live,” Keech said. “I am not going there to die.”