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    What If ‘Senior’ Were Not a Bad Word?

    By Karyn Skultety, PhD

    I have been an admirer of Openhouse throughout my career in aging services. I was amazed by the bravery of the founders to take on LGBT welcoming senior housing, and to be committed to an affordable model in a very expensive city. I have been truly inspired by the ways the organization has then built on that dream throughout 20 years of change, to think beyond housing to meet the broader service and community needs for LGBT elders. To come on as the leader in this moment, when that founding dream has been realized and the organization is growing, is both an honor and humbling. But the story of Openhouse, and the story of our LGBT seniors, is far from over. In fact, maybe we need to start at the beginning: the word “senior.”

    Many individuals detest this word and undoubtedly that comes from bearing witness to the ways that people are ignored and de-valued as they age. But what if we took our own moment of bravery and embraced this word for its true definition? Webster’s Dictionary tells us that a senior is “a person with higher standing or rank.” What if every time we referred to a senior, we recognized their high standing as the person with the most experience and the most wisdom in the room?

    This certainly applies in the case of LGBT seniors. Without their bravery and without their strength, we would not be talking about “progress in LGBT rights,” because there would not even be a movement to talk about. I dream and wait for the day that we begin Pride parades and marches for our rights with LGBT seniors in the front—recognized as the leaders—while everyone less experienced (or, you might say, younger) follows behind.

    The work of Openhouse and other organizations serving LGBT seniors cannot begin with the “needs” of the elder community, but instead must begin with recognizing that these are the most high-standing members of our community. Then there is no doubt that we can, and should, commit to being there for what they need.

    One of the things I hear over and over from my talented and passionate Openhouse staff, and that I strongly relate to, is that the work we are doing for LGBT seniors isn’t just for them, but for all of us. Many staff have said, “I want to make a world that I will want to grow old in.”

    The question is: What can we do to inspire that connection to aging for the broader LGBT and straight ally community? Does ageism really prevent us from having empathy and respect for the experience of aging, which we will all hopefully go through? I think if we can take on that barrier, that fear that keeps us from identifying from our future selves, we can make tremendous progress in what a “welcome home” world could feel like for aging individuals, and for all of us.

    Dr. Karyn Skultety became the Executive Director of Openhouse in February 2017. She is a geriatric psychologist, and spent several years in leadership roles at Institute on Aging prior to coming to Openhouse.