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Aging in America

Aging in America

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Forget canasta -- senior citizens are having sex just like the rest of us. But until gay groups like SAGE came around, no one ever talked to them about it. As Kate Dailey finds out, that’s just one of many innovations credited to gays and lesbians.

For anyone who thinks growing older is just about playing bingo and learning to crochet, consider the intimacy room. Nursing homes and senior care centers that accept federal funds must provide space for private, intimate time with a loved one (or a stranger from down the hall). And as the director of advocacy and training for Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders, a nationally focused group with offices in New York City, it's Karen Taylor's job to ensure that gay residents have the same access to the intimacy room as hetero seniors. But in doing so, she discovered that no one was talking to seniors about sex. "We were embarrassing people just by bringing it up," says Taylor. "Very open-minded folks would say, 'I don't ask anyone about their sex lives.' Well, you should!"

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HIV rates are climbing among America's elderly population, forcing retirement on the notion of sexless seniors. But mainstream service providers, Taylor found, weren't talking about sex with their clients--until she and her fellow gay advocates did. It's just one of many examples of how, in the course of fighting for better, more sensitive treatment of gay seniors, groups like SAGE have improved patient care for everyone.

It couldn't come at a better time. Experts estimate that by 2030, as many as one in five Americans will be over the age of 65, and forward-thinking medical professionals and senior service providers are bracing themselves for a tidal wave of complications and social change. "Everyone's running around like chickens," says Teresa De Anni, community programs coordinator at Boulder County Aging Services in Colorado.

Because the aging boom will hit so big and raise such difficult questions--How will the economy support such a large group of retirees? At what point will quality-of-life considerations take priority over lifesaving medical interventions?--it has drawn comparisons to the AIDS crisis. And as with AIDS, gay and lesbian groups are doing some of the most innovative work around elder care.

"In the way the LGBT community was flexible and able to build services from the ground up for people with HIV/AIDS, it's doing something similar with aging," says Taylor. "Of the LGBT aging services I know, none are following what would be called the traditional model."

Groups like SAGE, the oldest organization of its kind, work to ensure that gay seniors have access to the same services and protection as their hetero counterparts, whether that means training government-sponsored senior homes in cultural competency or establishing specific services for LGBT seniors, like dating workshops. In a nod to these groups' growing influence, the AARP is sponsoring SAGE's fourth national conference, commemorating the group's 30th anniversary, this October in New York.

But their work often redounds to the benefit of everyone. For instance, gay clients often require more open-ended discussion with their service providers at intakes so the latter can identify their needs. It forces caseworkers and other staff to think outside the box, literally.

Instead of asking about a client's marital status, says Lisa Krinsky, director of the LGBT Aging Project in Massachusetts, they can ask something like "Who's important in your life?" "You're opening up a much richer subject," she says. If someone says his cat, the staffer will know to provide for the pet if the client falls ill. Otherwise, "the person won't leave the house to get the care he needs."

Another innovation? The experiences of Gays and lesbians with forming their own--not necessarily biological--families. With nuclear families continuing to fan out across the country and more seniors staying single (or becoming so), the longtime paradigm of a spouse or kids to care for someone as they grow old may have to be altered. The close-knit group of friends that gay seniors have relied on for years seems like a more realistic solution for everyone.

"The reality is, nontraditional ideas of what a family is reflect a great deal of what the aging population is beginning to look like," says Taylor. "We've already addressed that out of necessity." And because of that, other senior advocates don't have to.

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