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Challenges and Opportunties

agingladyThere are 20,000 LGBT seniors in San Francisco, and that number is expected to double over the next two decades.  This dramatic increase in our senior population will require new policies and programs to ensure the health and security of our community. The time has come to marshal our collective community resources.

San Francisco’s LGBT community is poised to respond to this significant increase in the senior population. The San Francisco LGBT Aging Policy Task Force, the San Francisco Department of Aging and Adult Services, LGBT senior organizations, and community leaders are working to improve the lives of LGBT seniors today and are preparing for future generations to come. Innovative services and new educational, cultural and recreational resources are now in place, or are in the development stage.

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55 Laguna

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In this inaugural column I will introduce some of the unique challenges and opportunities LGBT older adults face as we age. Over the coming year, guest columnists will address these issues, provide information about new programs and policies, and identify opportunities for community members and our allies to volunteer and be more engaged. My hope is that this column will inform you about senior services and programs, and will inspire you to get involved. It will take all of us working together to make San Francisco a model city where people of all ages can live healthy later lives.

Challenges

LGBT older adults and seniors are more vulnerable to becoming increasingly isolated.

As people grow older, their social networks may shrink. Heterosexuals rely on spouses and adult children to help them stay engaged and to remain as independent as possible in their own homes. But LGBT older adults who are 55 years of age or older are more likely to be single, to live alone and to have no children. Our families of choice, an important source of love and support, are often diminished as we age as dear friends move away, become frail themselves or pass on. Consequently, we are at greater risk for isolation and are less likely than heterosexual seniors to have someone to care for us as we grow older.

There is now a small, but expanding, network of LGBT senior and LGBT senior friendly programs that provide opportunities for friendship, recreation, education, mentoring and senior empowerment. Aging in community is a powerful resource to help us stay healthy and interconnected.

LGBT seniors do not feel welcomed in mainstream senior services.

LGBT seniors, regardless of income, remain critically underrepresented at every point in the long-term care system of senior services and programs. Discrimination and/or fear of discrimination cause LGBT older adults to defer health and support services, or to go back into the closet when accessing assistance.

Over the last decade, LGBT aging cultural competency training and advocacy have created safer, more welcoming senior environments and services through out the Bay Area. But due to a lack of funding for cultural competency training, many existing programs and services continue to be unable to serve our community effectively. The increased need for services for LGBT older adults clearly points to the need for greater advocacy, outreach and availability of culturally competent services. There is much work to be done to ensure that LGBT older adults are met with respect and compassionate understanding in senior housing, senior centers and senior health and social programs.

Secure and affordable housing is the number one concern of LGBT older adults and seniors.

We live in one of the most expensive cities in the world with one of the highest housing costs in the country. The demand for housing of any kind, senior housing, housing for people with HIV/AIDS, housing for people with disabilities, middle class housing, homeless shelters, etc., has simply outstripped supply.

LGBT seniors are not alone in struggling to secure affordable housing in San Francisco. But when LGBT seniors are forced to move from San Francisco and from beloved friends, they are not certain to find safe, gay friendly communities to live in.

There is no easy solution to this problem. We simply cannot build enough LGBT senior housing in San Francisco to meet the ever growing demand. The city needs to allow construction of new, less expensive housing. Legalizing existing in-law units, creating legislation that protects seniors from eviction, building LGBT senior welcoming housing with services, such as 55 Laguna, and making existing senior housing more LGBT friendly and responsive to the needs of LGBT seniors are all helpful and important steps towards greater housing security and affordability.

Effective and competent LGBT senior policies and programs require accurate information and current data.

But there is an absence of research on later life LGBT people. Most research has focused on gay men and lesbians. There have been few studies on LGBT elders of color, bisexuals, transgender elders, and older adults and seniors living with HIV/AIDS. The San Francisco Department of Aging and Adult Services makes a good effort at collecting and analyzing data on LGBT seniors, but a broader and more comprehensive citywide effort is needed. The collection of more comprehensive data about San Francisco’s LGBT population is essential to understanding and meeting the needs of our diverse communities

Opportunities

In the 1970s, we stood up against discrimination that did not recognize our humanity. We fought for our rights and created out LGBT communities that reflected who we are and not what others thought of us. In the 1980s and 90s, during the AIDS epidemic, we stood strong and fought hard for our lives and our friends. In this decade, we are winning the struggle for marriage equality and equality in the work force.

Right now, our aging community is at a new point of transformational change. The next unaddressed challenge for our community is to ensure that we age well with opportunities to live healthy, satisfying, meaningful, long-lived lives. Most  of us live vital, active lives. But most people need some kind of assistance as they age. It is not surprising then that the strongest predictor of good health and well being in later life is staying connected to caring people. We cannot age well alone.

Aging in community through a network of senior programs and services provides ways to stay engaged, receive needed support, and to give back to others. The opportunities for personal, emotional, intellectual and spiritual growth are exponential as our community embraces aging, values the experience and wisdom that comes with age, and respects and prioritizes our elders. This is the path we are on.

Dr. Marcy Adelman, a clinical psychologist in private practice, is co-founder of the non-profit organization Openhouse and a member of the San Francisco LGBT Aging Policy Task Force.