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John Feather, PhD


Making Communities LGBT Aging Friendly

Posted: 11/05/2013 5:58 am

For LGBT people and those who love and care about them, it was a day that will long be remembered and celebrated. On June 26, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling striking down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which had barred the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages performed in states that permit them. The reason: the court declared that DOMA was an unconstitutional violation of the Fifth Amendment.

Front and center in the debate was an older woman, Edie Windsor, age 84, who lost her spouse, Thea Spyer, in 2009. After 40 years together, her death was difficult, but then came the next blow: a bill for $363,000 in federal estate taxes that Edie would not have had to pay if, as she put it, "Thea was Theo." Edie sued the U.S. government and won. Her case changed history.

Like Edie and Thea, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) older people face daunting challenges as they grow old:

  • LGBT older adults are twice as likely to be single and to live alone. They are three to four times as likely to be childless. Because approximately 80% of the informal care older people need is provided by family members, LGBT older adults are less likely to have someone to take care of them as they grow older.
  • They are also less likely to feel welcome in the places where many older people socialize, such as senior centers, volunteer centers, and places of worship, and are less likely than their heterosexual peers to access aging services. Research shows that the harmful effects of such social isolation can include depression, delayed care-seeking, poor nutrition, and premature mortality.
  • Many of the safety net programs intended to keep elders out of poverty, such as Social Security or Medicaid spousal impoverishment protections, are not equally available to LGBT older adults because the federal government does not recognize their relationships.
  • Due to higher levels of financial insecurity (poverty rates among elder lesbian and gay couples are 9.1% and 4.9%, respectively, compared to 4.6% among elder heterosexual couples) and a general lack of affordable housing, many LGBT elders find that they cannot afford homes in the communities where they may have lived for years.

Many communities are starting to focus on becoming more age friendly -- becoming great places not only to grow up but also to grow old. This is wonderful and much needed. But how do we ensure that they also become more LGBT aging friendly? The challenges can seem formidable, since they include health care, services, transportation, long-term care, and housing.

The National Resource Center on LGBT Aging is a comprehensive, federally-supported resource on many topics and is the best place to start the search for information. For organizations serving seniors, the Center offers cultural competency training to help staff better understand and serve their LGBT clients. The Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE) program in Harlem is an excellent example of integrating services on a local level to reach LGBT seniors in a diverse community.

Recognizing that specialized LGBT-specific housing will never be able to meet the needs (or even desires) of most seniors, innovative programs such as openhouse in San Francisco provide both housing and services that focus on the needs of this population.

Given all the challenges, it may seem paradoxical that LGBT baby boomers are optimistic about aging. In many ways, the fight for acceptance that LGBT people in this age group have faced has made them better equipped to advocate for themselves and those they love.

It also highlights the fact that all LGBT people are not the same -- they have different financial resources, some are couples but many are not, and they have been affected by different life experiences. Boomers are part of the first "post-Stonewall" generation to reach retirement. Not only did they become adults during the tumultuous 1960s, they have also gone through the searing experience of AIDS, are more likely to have spent much of their adult lives out of the closet, and have lived to see LGBT acceptance at a level unimagined even 10 years ago. Some in an older generation are still less comfortable with this level of visibility, although the example of Edie Windsor reminds us that no stereotype applies to any group equally.

The Supreme Court decision was historic but Edie Windsor reminds us that at its heart, it is personal as well. In her moment of joy, she remembered the person she lost: "If I had to survive Thea, what a glorious way to do it." [Watch Edie Windsor's remarks.] Hopefully, we are one step closer to making her dream a reality for all people.

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

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  • Bistro Living

    "3 In A Row" in downtown San Diego exemplifies "bistro living" at its best. The baby boomers who live here are liberated from the maintenance of a single-family home and yard, and can walk to work and the city's prime attractions. The homes are also affordable.

  • Bistro Living

    The "3 In A Row" townhomes contain a bedroom and full bath at ground level; a kitchen, dining room and family room on the second level; and more bedrooms and baths with a balcony on level three. Clerestory windows minimize the need for artificial light in the day, and there's room to add an elevator as residents age.

  • Social Scene

    Post 50s want to age in the company of friends, and South Park Lofts, a townhome development in Seattle, Washington, embodies this theme. The units face each other across a commons, encouraging residents to socialize. South Park is now known for its art shows and parties. The LEED-certified development attracted eco-minded couples and singles. On the exterior, solar panels also serve as a protective awning.

  • Social Scene

    Eco-friendly interior features at South Park Lofts include bamboo flooring; hard surface tile with 40 percent recycled content; and a heating system designed to perform about 20 percent better than Washington State energy code. Patios, common areas and recessed entries also encourage neighbors to mingle.

  • Ageless Home For Later Life

    A Madison, Wisconsin couple built "Ross Street House," a LEED-certified platinum-rated residence that is designed to allow the owners to age in place. A smooth path and broad steps make for easy front-door access. The house has a shaft space for a future elevator, and a cabana near the pool has a kitchen and bath so it can be converted to a caretaker's residence.

  • Ageless Home For Later Life

    The main level is an open plan for dining and entertainment, and the lower level contains a bedroom for guests and grandchildren (who also have a "rumpus room"). The upper level has a master suite and study that opens to the living room below.

  • The Refilled Nest

    This private residence in Shelburne, Vermont was built for a boomer couple who live with their daughter and her two children. More than 51 million Americans live in multigenerational households and the numbers are growing. Eventually the roles could be reversed, and this home would allow the daughter to take care of her parents.

  • The Refilled Nest

    The open and spacious main living area easily accommodates three generations. The windows of the home offer magnificent views of Lake Champlain.

  • Reversible Destiny

    "Bioscleave," in East Hampton, New York, exemplifies a philosophy called "reversible destiny" -- the idea that a steady decline in our faculties from midlife onward is not inevitable. The home is intentionally disorienting so the owners have to think as they find their way through it -- keeping them mentally challenged and sharp.

  • Reversible Destiny

    Outside, the grounds at "Bioscleave" are literally a maze, inspiring a "way-finding" exploration that makes life more fun and interesting.

  • Affordable But Never Boring

    In New Orleans' 9th Ward, Brad Pitt's nonprofit "Make It Right Foundation" has worked with architects to build green and affordable single-family homes. Some 40 percent of the homeowners are between 55 and 65. "Float House," pictured here, sits on posts that allow it to rise 12 feet in the event of a flood and includes solar roof panels.

  • Affordable But Never Boring

    A new take on the traditional shotgun house, Float House has a welcoming front porch and a wide, green ramp that makes it accessible to all.

  • Affordable But Never Boring

    The contrast of black and white elements in the kitchen are easier on aging eyes. Work areas are designed to be accessible. Many of the new homes in New Orleans are attracting three-generation families headed by people in their 60s.

  • Downsized Getaway

    A post 50 couple seeking to simplify their lives by downsizing built the "Corum Residence," an isolated, elegant and highly efficient home in Pella, Iowa. Not an inch of space is wasted in this unique dwelling.

  • Downsized Getaway

    Interior finishes at Corum Residence are natural and easily maintained.

  • Downsized Getaway

    At Corum Residence, large windows make the compact space feel light and airy, and maximize natural light and passive solar heat.


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