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    The Incredible Opportunity to Serve LGBTQ Seniors

    By Karyn Skultety, PhD–

    What do people say when I tell them that my career and my passion are in working with seniors? Can you guess? Most people look to the ground and mutter something along the lines of, “Well, that must be depressing.” Others simply give a knowing smile and then gently say, “Thank you for doing that work—I know I could never do it.” And, of course, there are those who just go for a straightforward, “Ugh,” and walk the other direction.

    So, I am here to set the record straight and to say it loud and clear: There is nothing sad or depressing about my work. Every single day I have the opportunity to be surrounded by heroes. Every single day I am grateful for the incredible opportunity to be reminded of the privileges I might easily otherwise take for granted.

    About two years ago, shortly after I became the Executive Director of Openhouse, I brought my kids, Quinn (age 8) and Nova (age 5), to a Pride party at Openhouse. It was a crowded event, attended by over 100 LGBTQ seniors. Many of the people at the party were new to me and I found myself feeling self-conscious.

    I began to envision how my lovely, but often wild, children would run into someone or knock over the decorations or completely empty out the plates of cookies. I noticed Gena, a 70-year-old lesbian woman from our Openhouse art group, shaking her head in what I assumed was annoyance. She began walking over to me, barely missing Quinn’s sprawled out legs as he laid down to do some art on the floor.

    I braced myself for a lecture as Gena approached, and was startled when she said, “Thank you.” I was stunned and simply replied, “Uh, for what?” Gena looked me in the eye and cautiously responded, “For bringing them here.” I’ll admit at that point, I looked around to see if perhaps someone else had brought other children to the event. Gena continued on and explained, “I am thanking you for bringing your kids here. You see, most of us in this room didn’t have our own kids, but it goes beyond that. We spent most of our lives hearing that we were a danger to children and we were people they should not even be around.”

    Nothing could be clearer to me in that moment than how lucky I am and how I was standing among the people who have paved the way for my life today. I am an inspired 42-year-old queer woman with a wife and children who gets to spend my day with the people who gave me that life. I get to spend my day with activists who started the LGBTQ movement—our seniors. It is not just the life that they helped to build for LGBTQ people. It is that they shaped this city to become what it is known for today: a place to be who you are and love whom you love.

    Every time I then hear someone say, “Your work is so depressing,” my heart breaks. Imagine how seniors are being treated if this is the reaction to who they are. It is no wonder that despite our expanding housing and services for LGBTQ seniors, they continue to report high levels of isolation and loneliness. They let us know that this is a city where ageism is thriving. They report that the experience of growing old in San Francisco is one of being pushed out and feeling invisible.

    It is not just the impact of the collective “ugh” on individuals that hurts me. It is equally painful to consider all of the ways that our community and our city are missing out. We are missing our opportunity to know our history. We are missing our chance to not take our privilege for granted but to treasure it. We are missing our connection to the resilience that could lead our fight for social justice forward today.

    Please stop telling me that you are thankful that I am working with seniors so that you don’t have to. Stop and ask yourself about what kind of community you want to build. Don’t let Openhouse become another closet—a place to shut the door and hide LGBTQ people as they age. Join me in an opportunity to hear the voices of resilience. Work together and stand with our seniors. Stand next to them and ensure that they are central today in our LGBTQ communities, central in the city they helped to build and central in our fight for social justice today.

    Karen Skultety, PhD, is the Executive Director of Openhouse.