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    Aging: Everybody’s Doing It, and We Do It With Resiliency

    By Kathleen Sullivan, Ph.D.–

    We are all aging, and some of us based on privilege, location, or family history will have a softer, easier experience than others. If you look at what the “experts” tell us, you will discover that, aside from a few relatively normal signs of aging, our individual aging is just that, individual.

    So, what is normal and what is not? Presbyopia, yes. Dementia, no. As a gerontologist, I bristle at the phrase “senior moment,” because it is not normal to lose your memory or focus as you age. While Alzheimer’s disease, a form of dementia, is a debilitating and life-changing disease for those with it and their caregivers, it is not normal.

    Dr. Kathleen Sullivan at the “Half Way 2 L.A.” point during the great SFUSD teacher.
    AIDS/LifeCycle ride (2014)

    Laura Carstensen of Stanford was one of the first to study how we adapt to our environment as we age. The work she did with Dr. Margret Baltes and Dr. Paul Baltes is summarized in a simple concept known as SOC, or selection, optimization, and compensation. As we age, we select which activities, for instance, we want to continue to pursue based upon our interest, ability, and access. We also optimize those things that we do well and the experiences of those things—for instance, taking an art class or attending a language class. Finally, there is compensation; for some of us, we will need to learn how to compensate for a frailty or change in our ability, such as using a cane or walker, or getting a book with large print from the library.

    All of us are aging, and for the LGBTQ community there are additional things we consider and have to think about that our heterosexual counterparts do not. Feeling safe in a care setting is paramount, and, for older adults who interact with the medical or social service systems, feeling unsafe is a barrier to access and care. If one of our community members does not feel they can be open and honest about their gender identity or sexual orientation, they are at a disadvantage.

    Dr. Kathleen Sullivan (center) with her wife
    Rebecca (left) and Susan DeMarois, Director
    of the California Department on Aging, at the
    annual Spring Fling benefit (2023)

    It is common for older LGBTQ people to delay care or not disclose one’s gender identity or sexual orientation (or both) to a provider. A study by AARP found that two-thirds of LGBTQ seniors in long-term care settings do not disclose their gender identity or sexual orientation. That means isolating, changing the names and genders of lovers and friends, and no talking about past experiences—all to fit into the heteronormative assumption. Keeping a secret is stressful and can have a detrimental impact on both physical and mental health. Isolation and feelings of loneliness are correlated with earlier death.

    While many in our community suffer in silence, in the Bay Area we have two wonderful resources that connect our elder community to one another and younger folks. The Oakland LGBT Center is home to Aging With Pride to support LGBTQ elders in the East Bay, and Openhouse provides programs and services to San Franciscans, and, increasingly, the greater Bay Area. In a study done of Openhouse programs, reductions in isolation and improvement of mental health outcomes were the result of providing safe space where LGBTQ older adults felt safe and connected to others in the community.

    Miss Patti Ann Hall with Kathleen Sullivan at the
    Pride Luncheon held at the Openhouse Courtyard

    Barriers to service and programs are real for our community. Openhouse Training and Transformation for mainstream providers of care creates new and more safe spaces for LGBTQ elders to better serve our community. Together we are stronger and more able to support those who came before us who, through their blood, sweat, and tears, helped to gain the privileges we enjoy today.

    Kathleen M. Sullivan, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Openhouse, now in its 25th year of providing a suite of services for LGBTQ older adults in the Bay Area including mental health support, affordable housing, day services, educational and enrichment programs, and training for the professional aging services staff of California. She holds a Ph.D. in gerontology, has been called a tennis nut, is a proud ALC rider, and is wife to Rebecca, a great SFUSD teacher.

    Aging in Community Special Section Part Two by Dr. Marcy Adelman
    Published on May 18, 2023