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LGBT elders make themselves heard [1 April, 2009]

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The Chicago Department of Senior Services is required to conduct annual citywide public hearings on the Area Plan on Aging.  This public document is designed to describe how the Office of Senior Services will use funds from the Older Americans Act of 1965 and from the State of Illinois General Revenue Funds.  Howard Brown recently conducted an LGBT Elder Needs Assessment, and the results were presented at a public forum at the Center on Halsted, 3656 N.  Halsted, March 24.  The event was organized by the Chicago Task Force on LGBT Aging and the SAGE Advisory Council.

Terri Worman, of the AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons), moderated the two-hour hearing, which began with a presentation on the findings of the needs assessment by Hope Barrett, the deputy director of elder and LGBTI women’s issues at Howard Brown.  According to Barrett, the assessment confirmed some of the previous findings about the LGBT aging population, such as its educational background, which tends to be higher than the norm.  But it was also surprising in some aspects, such as the fact that the level of negative experiences in receiving care was not as high as had been anticipated; only 14 percent said they reported negative experiences.  LGBT elders are likely to face greater forms of discrimination and, consequently, isolation in care facilities.  However, Barrett did say that the survey did not ask about gender identity.

The assessment also discovered that isolation is a huge issue for LGBT elderly, who are concerned about not having enough social spaces to go to for social interactions in the city.  It also indicated that many are afraid of going out to late-night events and bars because their diminished physical capacity makes them less able to respond to potential harm from strangers on dark streets.  There was also a significant amount of depression recorded among the LGBT elderly, and only 34 percent reported that they were satisfied with their daily activities.

Barrett, Worman and Amber Hollibaugh—director of elder and LGBTI women’s issues at Howard Brown—spoke about the different efforts to address these issues.  For instance, Howard Brown is drawing upon peer outreach coordinators whose job is to raise awareness about available services within the LGBT elder population.

The presentation on the needs assessment was followed by a speak-out by members of the LGBT elder population, and this portion was punctuated by several energetic points made by attendees.  Ron, a longtime resident of Boystown, spoke about the need for more affordable housing that could ensure that people like him could stay in their neighborhood: “I can’t afford to live in this neighborhood.  I’m getting tired of getting pushed out.”  (Note: Some attendees did not give their last names.) David Baker, who lives in a Chicago Housing Authority building in Lincoln Park, said he was happy there but pointed out that there needed to be “more sensitivity training for staff members” and efforts to “raise the consciousness of the residents themselves.”

Among the chief concerns expressed by many were transportation (with complaints about RTA’s services) and the issue of sensitivity to LGBT people among caretakers.  One person, self-identified as Earl, asked if there were any gay or gay-friendly nursing homes.  Hollibaugh said there were not any LGBT-specific places but that there were some identified as having openly gay staff.  She said, “It’s part of the agenda to begin to do training; we’re working with our partners to be sure to document the places that welcome us.”  Barrett addressed that issue as well and said that there were plans to compile a resource directory that would list such places but that they needed to be thoroughly vetted to make sure they are indeed LGBT-friendly: “We need to do some background research about the organizations we list on this guide.”

While many of the participants spoke about North Side/Boystown experiences, one of them, Steve, was concerned about outreach to LGBT elders in other parts of the city and asked, “What’s being done to reach the South Side and for people who can’t access the Center?” Worman acknowledged such issues with outreach and said that efforts were being made to hold similar events across the city.

Some participants felt that there needed to be more organizing efforts among LGBT elders themselves.  Tom said that there needed to “an attempt to mobilize community members and participants to empower themselves.”  He also said that the ownership of such issues currently belonged to the agencies, and that needed to change.  Hollibaugh agreed and said that the current program was a good model for independent elder groups or organizations that mobilized to find their own agenda.

Several of the suggestions from other participants related to similar issues around safety, empowerment and access to information; one man suggested that there ought to be a hotline for elders to call.  Worman said that all the input from the day’s meeting would be gathered for testimony to the city about the needs of LGBT elders, and she invited people to contribute more material and questions.  Worman can be reached at or 312-458-3610.

Originaly published in Windy City Times, 1 April, 2009

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