"Gay Seniors –
Stigmas continue into golden years"
They still are deeply in love after 27 years together. They own their home. And after decades of feeling they needed to live in secrecy at work, they have retired and are now completely out about their relationship.
In some ways, the years ahead truly are looking golden for Kathy Glass, 73, and Carmah Lawler, 77. But in others, old age brings a world of uncertainty.
If one of them falls gravely ill, will the other be afforded the same decision-making rights a heterosexual partner would get? If one of them dies, will the other be able to afford to keep the house? If they have to go into an assisted-living facility, will they be able to room together? And if they do, how will they be treated?
"Would we have to go back into the closet in order to feel comfortable there?" asks Lawler, who lives in Lakewood with Glass.
These are just some of the unique social and financial challenges facing the nation's roughly 3 million gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered seniors - a group expected to grow to as many as 5 million by the year 2030 as more baby boomers enter their golden years.
Raised in an era when homosexuality was still considered a criminal offense and being fired for being gay was common, many remain closeted well into their senior years, steering clear of services targeted toward their age group and retreating into isolation. Because three-quarters of them live alone, and 90 percent have no children, they often have no one to call on in an emergency. And for many still in the closet, the typical crises involved with getting old or approaching the end of life, include another painful wrinkle: Deciding whether or not to tell a care giver that they are gay.
"Life review is incredibly important for a good death," says Teresa De Anni, of Boulder County Aging Services. "If you can`t open up then, it`s a tragedy, an absolute tragedy."
Aiming to address such issues head-on, Boulder County Aging Services over the past five years has become a national leader in providing services specifically for gay and lesbian seniors. It offers a monthly support group, an annual dance, a directory of gay-friendly service providers, and a respite care program that sends gay or lesbian caregivers on home visits to peers in need.
Now, the county is gaining national attention with its newest endeavor, a film and education program - both titled Project Visibility - that aim to alert administrators and staff of nursing homes and assisted living facilities that, despite assumptions otherwise, there are gay clients among them, and they need not be invisible.
"We just take for granted that everyone we meet is heterosexual," says Emily Lewis, Project Visibility trainer.
AGING BACK INTO THE CLOSET
When Boulder County Aging Services workers recently surveyed all the facilities around the county who house seniors, they asked each one if they had any gay or lesbian residents among them. The answer they got was statistically impossible.
"Most of them said no," Lewis says. "But we knew of folks in those facilitates who identified as GLBT."
In fact, the county estimates that roughly 3,200 gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered seniors live here. The trouble is, the health care system offers them few opportunities to speak up about who they are, so they often slowly return to the closet - particularly if they go to live in a facility.
Take, for instance, the intake forms that patients must fill out when they check in:
"Very few intake forms even have the term 'partner` on them," says Lewis, referring to boxes labeled, "single," or "married" on medical forms. The same goes with the conversation openers that often come from well-meaning staff trying to break the ice.
"Being an older woman, everywhere I go, the conversation opener is 'how many grandchildren do you have?'" says Lewis, who is gay. "That just shuts me down."
Project Visibility encourages nursing homes and assisted living centers to add sexual orientation to their non-discrimination policy, change the wording of their intake forms, and ask "open-ended" questions when trying to get to know a patient. Such steps are critical, area administrators say, and those who have undergone the training have begun to make them. But the greater challenge is shifting the attitudes among older residents.
LeRoy Baker, administrator for Mesa Vista assisted living center in Boulder, has been in the elder care field for nearly three decades and says he has seen much progress in terms of how gay and lesbians are treated in facilities. There was a time decades ago when he worked at other facilities that staff members regularly ignored the call lights of openly gay seniors, and other residents blatantly excluded them from dining room activities. He doesn`t see that anymore.
"They are more accepting than they have ever been," Baker says. But discrimination still exists.
He tells the story of one gay elderly man who was severely beaten on the Western slope and suffered a brain injury a few years back. In the community he lived in, no facility would accept him. So he was moved to one in the Denver area to live out his life.
While overt rudeness has quieted, subtle stereotypes also still persist among older residents.
"I thought this would be over about 25 years ago, but I think people are still leery that people who are gay will transmit diseases," Baker says, baffled.
Six years into his retirement, and finally out to the world about his sexual orientation, 68-year-old George Mrazek has no intention of returning to the closet, even if his health deteriorates to the point where he must move into an elder-care facility. Growing up the son of a minister in a small town in Minnesota, Mrazek knew in college that he was attracted to men. But rather than accept it, he spent the next 20 years trying to change, reading psychology books on how to embrace heterosexuality and dating women.
"I wanted a family. I wanted to be a minister. I basically thought my life would be better if I were straight," he says.
By 40, he accepted his sexual orientation, but it wasn`t until he retired from his job as a social worker that he decided to come out of the closet.
Mrazek`s partner, Lon Loucks, was married four years, in a relationship with a woman for 19 years, and on his own for 20 years before coming to terms with his own sexuality. "I totally repressed that side of myself until three years ago," says Loucks, who only came out publicly after being asked to be photographed and interviewed for this story.
Liberated by their newfound freedom to be honest about their lives, neither are willing to give it up.
"I want my partner to be able to visit me and I want to be able to hug and kiss," Mrazek says. "But I am concerned that other residents won`t be accepting."
Already, Mrazek has begun to look around at places to live, and he`s considering a retirement center in Santa Fe being built exclusively for gays and lesbians. "I am going to be out. I have made my mind up on that."
AND END-OF LIFE ISSUES
Glass and Lawler have taken legal steps to avoid the nightmare scenarios they have long read about in the news.
When they travel, they carry medical powers of attorney along with them, to ensure that if one falls ill, the other will be by their bedside to help make decisions. And each has spelled out clearly in her will who gets the house, and the investments, if she dies. But their faith in those papers is limited.
"Not everybody will accept it. Even though you have a 'legal document` drawn up by a legal professional, it doesn`t mean that the hospital in whatever state or country you are traveling in would accept it," Glass says.
According to Colorado law, when one spouse dies, the other spouse is automatically entitled to a portion of the estate, even if the deceased does not have a will. No such law exists for domestic partners. And while hospitals are mandated to respect medical powers of attorney, if there is a dispute from a family member, they can ask that the issue be sorted out in court.
That`s why legal documents - which according to one study only about half of lesbians have - are so important, lawyers say.
"It can be a bigger issue for gays and lesbians because of the potential bias and prejudice of family members against the partners," elder law attorney Martha Ridgway says.
The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force points out numerous discrepancies in federal law that "threaten gay and lesbian seniors with financial ruin" as they age:
When a married person enters a nursing home, the spouse at home is protected from the house being counted as an asset to pay for nursing home care. The same does not apply for same-sex couples.
When one same-sex partner dies, the other is not eligible for Social Security survivor`s benefits.
Inheritance is taxed differently for married and non-married couples, so a surviving domestic partner could be taxed tens of thousands of dollars for the house he or she lives in, or the retirement account he or she inherits.
"We have had friends who owned a great deal of property together and they were advised to get rid of the house they lived in because one would probably not be able to afford the taxes if the other person died," says Glass.
Democratic lawmakers currently are working to get a referendum on the November ballot asking voters to grant domestic partners an array of legal rights, including the ability to sue for the wrongful death of a partner and file for divorce under state law. Republican Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield also proposed a bill recently that he says would "solve practical problems for people who aren`t able to marry." Lawler and Glass will be watching them closely.
"There are about 1,049 federal rights that come with marriage, and those are not available to us," Glass says.
Aside from the complexities that come with aging with a partner come a whole host of other issues that apply to the 80 percent of gay seniors who have no partner at all. According to Senior Action in a Gay Environment, a national advocacy group, gay seniors are five times less likely to access offerings put forth by senior services, and 20 percent have no one to call on in an emergency. Studies also have shown they are more prone to depression and premature death.
Locally, progress is definitely occurring, but slowly.
"I don`t hear gasps anymore when I talk about gay seniors," says De Anni, only half joking.
Out of the 17 or so independent living facilities in Boulder County, three have chosen to be listed in the county`s Silver Lining Resource Guide for the Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Elder Community. Out of 20 assisted living facilities, seven have signed up. Out of the eight nursing homes, two have signed up.
Thus far, De Anni says, "none of the facilities are jumping" to have their staff go through the Project Visibility training, but the county is confident in its goal that ultimately 90 percent of them will. In the meantime, the Rainbow Elders group - a Boulder-based support group for gay and lesbian seniors - is thriving, with dozens of members meeting monthly. People who once felt like they were all alone are finding each other.
"There is a community there where there wasn`t before," De Anni says. "They feel like it might not be so scary to age now."