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    Creating Welcoming Environments for LGBT Seniors

    As the U.S. Supreme Court was taking up the issue of gay marriage last year, Dr. John DeCecco wanted to make a difference in his local community here at The Carlisle, a senior community located on Cathedral Hill in San Francisco. He had an idea for a new resident club: A Gay Straight Alliance (GSA), inspired by high school clubs that brought students together.

    Dr. DeCecco has been a trailblazer for many years. At San Francisco State University, he was a professor of Psychology and was the Director of the Human Sexuality program. He is also the former editor of the Journal of Homosexuality, an academic peer-review journal, and is a member and sponsor of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Historical Society.

    Dr. DeCecco started gathering his fellow neighbors once a month to have an open dialogue around LGBT issues. As Executive Director of The Carlisle, I have a strong obligation and commitment to ensuring all of my residents are treated with respect and dignity. It’s also the expectation of the company that I work for, Sunrise Senior Living. I am fortunate to work for a company whose mission is to champion the quality of life for all seniors, and calls upon all employees to preserve dignity and celebrate individuality for all residents.

    I asked the GSA to make recommendations on what we can do to ensure LGBT residents feel safe and welcome in our community. As a result, we have updated some of our move-in forms to be more inclusive, provided ongoing staff training on the needs of LGBT seniors, and sponsored events from a Gay Pride Social Hour to an LGBT film festival and excursions to The Grove in Golden Gate Park. For the past five years, Openhouse, a non-profit organization dedicated to serving LGBT seniors, has trained my team and has given them a better understanding of the life experiences and needs of the LGBT population.

    At a recent GSA meeting, members told stories of past discrimination: one resident told of being forced to seek treatment from a psychiatrist in order to save his job. Another spoke of not outing himself until he received a major grant for a project so that his job would be more secure. Almost all of the members are not out to their families and many of them to this day are only comfortable being out to other members of the LGBT community. In San Francisco, we are lucky to have such a strong network of support for the LGBT community, but we need to build these efforts across all senior communities.

    I call upon professionals working with seniors to make sure their organization is doing everything it can do to ensure LGBT seniors are living in environments where they are treated with dignity and can be open about who they are. It’s important to train our employees to be sensitive to diversity issues, ensure quality care to all residents, provide move-in forms that are inclusive to all, follow strong non-discrimination policies, and ensure that all visitors are treated equally and with respect.

    The GSA has had a positive impact on our community. As a result, a group of GSA members get together for dinners and discuss their life experiences. On Friday nights, they sit together at the social hour events. In that spirit, I would like to make a toast to Dr. John DeCecco and the members of the GSA, for helping to drive a conversation that has resulted in more residents feeling comfortable about being themselves and forming new friendships along the way.

    Tom Berry is the Executive Director of The Carlisle, a Sunrise Senior Living Community in San Francisco. He has an M.A. in Gerontology from San Francisco State University and is a former Openhouse board member.

    LGBT Resources
    for Seniors
    • Openhouse: 415-296-8995
    • Family Caregiver
    Alliance: 415-434-3388
    • Institute on Aging: 415-750-4111,
    • National Resource
    Center on LGBT Aging
    • Project Open Hand
    San Francisco: Nutrition
    Services, 415-447-2300
    • SAGE: 212-741-2247
    • Shanti Project, Inc: HIV Services and Life Threatening Illnesses, 415-674-4700
    Alzheimer’s Association Programs and Services:
    • 24/7 Helpline: 1-800-272-3900,; Online Community:
    • Memory Clinic, Kaiser
    Permanente Santa Clara Medical Center: 408-530-6900,