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Building Connections Is the Key to Healthy Aging

sethConnection to community is the number-one predictor of health and well-being for older adults. No matter your income level, cultural background, degree of mobility or living arrangement, it is the key to living longer and remaining independent. Openhouse is expanding our programs and services to help us stay connected and healthy.

Information and referrals about senior services in San Francisco is often the beginning of community building.

It usually starts with a phone call. Figuring out what community-based services are available, and then navigating through the array of options, can be daunting for anyone. With legitimate concerns about being treated with respect and understanding, many LGBT older adults need some basic information to get started and a friendly advocate to support them.

Of the more than 1,500 community members who have turned to Openhouse in the last two years, almost one-third have started with our information and referral services. Some callers need information about LGBT-friendly senior retirement communities. Others need in-home care, job counseling, affordable housing or other community-based service. For many, the information is enough. Others benefit from individual appointments with our social service staff or attend one of our monthly housing workshops. The key is to start somewhere and have a person to call.

Volunteer-based friendly visitors offer emotional support, practical assistance and reassurance.

Often without children to step in as aging-related challenges arise, LGBT older adults count on community and families of choice. The Caring Connections Friendly Visitor Program at Openhouse matches screened, trained, and staff-supported volunteers with an LGBT older-adult. Both volunteers and participants create meaningful and rewarding relationships.

Just a few hours of regular connection each month promotes independence, significantly reduces the risk of hospitalization, and keeps both volunteers and participants emotionally and physically healthier. We have recently expanded this program to include weekly telephone check-ins and follow up. Over the next year, we will offer an even wider range of support, including assistance with shopping, transportation, and other practical assistance.

Staying engaged with our communities of choice is critical as we age.

As women, as members of the transgender community, as caregivers, as artists, as opera buffs and more, LGBT older adults identify with multiple communities. Having access to a diversity of programs and activities is essential so the entire community of older LGBT adults in San Francisco can feel at home and feel connected.

Every month, hundreds of older adults come together for discussion groups, social events, outings and art programs. The Openhouse Men’s Second Sunday gathering, for example, features local authors, performers, and musicians. It provides gay, bisexual, and trans-identified men a regular opportunity to connect with one another. West of Twin Peaks is a new social group of women who identify as older, female, lesbian, bisexual, questioning, and transgender.

Our newly formed opera group will meet in February to watch Richard Strauss’s Salome. And beginning in March, our much-loved Spanish instructor will offer a lively and entertaining ten-week course on Thursday evenings that will explore the birth and evolution of the Romance languages.

A safe space to discuss health issues is proven to promote health and well-being.

In her inaugural column in this space, Dr. Marcy Adelman noted the health disparities that result when LGBT older adults defer health and support services. To address these issues and encourage early access to care, Openhouse is offering a wider range of health and wellness programs.

Starting in February, in partnership with the San Francisco Department of Aging and Adult Services and On Lok 30th St. Senior Center, Openhouse will offer a workshop series, developed at Stanford, proven to help older adults manage chronic health conditions. Our Fourth Friday Health and Wellness Series brings LGBT older adults together with health professionals to discuss diabetes prevention, healthy eating, managing stress, reducing suicide ideation, and building healthy relationships. Our HIV support group provides a safe and confidential space for participants to share their experiences and discuss the gifts and losses that come with being a survivor.

No single organization can directly meet the needs of every person in the community it serves. But every community needs a place to start. Openhouse is that place for many LGBT older adults. Our expansion plans will ensure that we will be that place for more diverse segments of the community in the months and years ahead.

Seth Kilbourn is the Executive Director of Openhouse. For more information on Openhouse services and programs for LGBT older adults, visit www.openhouse-sf.org or call (415) 296-8995.