Funny how social media conversations can lead you down unexpected paths.
I had recently posted about the creative name variants people use when they send holiday cards to our family (we are an unmarried lesbian couple who have been together for 12+ years) -- this is a pet peeve! A few people asked if they could send me a card which then led to the issue of card projects for members of the military and nursing homes and similar efforts. Someone asked if such a thing existed for LGBTQ elders.
I turned to Kathi Boyle who is the coordinator for Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE) in Pittsburgh. SAGE is a national program, hosted locally by Persad Center, the region's largest LGBTQ organization. She provided me with three specific older gay men who are isolated this year and will not have a lot of support during the holidays. I then put this back out into the interwebs inviting people to send cards (and gift cards) in care of Persad Center.
While waiting for the outcome, I had a conversation with Kathi about this issue which was recently highlighted by local public radio outlet WESA 90.5 FM.
Sue Kerr: Describe the current situation with regard to LGBTQ elders in this region?
Kathi Boyle: There are some stories of our Elders going back into the closet when engaged in County senior programs. They fear bullying, ridicule and gossiping from others if they shared that they are LGBTQ. This creates so many issues: how can a service help someone who fears telling them who they are, how can a program address depression in a senior if the service has no knowledge of the issues in a person's life.
I believe our local #s are similar to the national statistics with less than 20 percent of our local LGBTQ elders enrolled in any senior services.
Kerr: How is SAGE addressing these needs and tapping into the strengths?
Boyle: SAGE is hoping to develop a program of "friendly visitors" for folks who are not mobile. Additionally, Persad's new space will provide our seniors with safe space for all kinds of programming. Focus groups will be held in 2015 to develop a wish list of ideas.
Kerr: Why did Persad affiliate with SAGE?
Boyle: Because W PA has a large senior population, and Persad's counseling services serve many LGBTQ Elders, Persad affiliated with SAGE in order to have access to the best practice ideas and information that SAGE provides.
Kerr: How can the public support our LGBTQ elders through SAGE and Persad?
Boyle: So many of our seniors live alone, compared to heterosexual seniors. This situation can create many kinds of health disparities: falls, depression, increased substance abuse, poor nutrition. Our LGBTQ elders need connections to other people who can provide socialization and reduce isolation.
Kerr: What are the specific requirements to volunteer?
Boyle: Persad's volunteer program requires Act 33&34 and FBI clearances. Age 18. Car is helpful but not mandatory.
Kerr: This year, the community responded to a specific request to support 3 gay men with holiday cards and gifts? Tell us about that. What items were donated? What are the stories of the 3 men?
Boyle: Christmas cards came from the Youth Group at Allegheny Unitarian Universalist church. An anonymous donor gave Giant Eagle gift cards. Someone else sent Rite-Aid cards. Some of the gift cards are in sealed Christmas cards which I have not opened and will possibly find out if my gentlemen choose to open them in front of me.
What is amazing to me is how easily you made this happen, Sue! I know that next year we will have more requests as Persad's doors are open and services expand.
I have the joy of delivering these the next two days and spending time with the guys. They will be thrilled that folks thought of them and were generous with gifts and kindness.
Kerr: Three of the men you mentioned live in Westmoreland County which is adjacent to Allegheny (home of Pittsburgh.) How does a more rural setting further away from the hub of Pittsburgh impact access to services and resources?
Boyle: Living in a rural area is so difficult due to transportation issues. Getting to doctor appointments thru ACCESS is very hard: if someone lives in Apollo but sees specialists in Pittsburgh it is an all day ordeal. One of "my guys" had an appointment with his specialist, that he had waited months to get, and because the doctor was backed up with other patients, he had to leave to catch ACCESS before meeting with the physician.
The other gentleman I work with in Westmorland cannot get his animals to the vet unless I take him. ACCESS won 't take him, taxis will only transport pets in pet carriers which makes it too heavy for him to lift.
The other gentleman lives in Pittsburgh but is in a second floor apartment and he has to have assistance to walk the steps. He is on a couple waiting lists for senior housing. I am very worried that if there is a fire in his building he will not be able to get out.
Kerr: Is there public funding for programs like SAGE?
Boyle: SAGE does not provide housing. However, local foundations have expressed interest in supporting programs when we are in the new space.
Kerr: Christmas and the holiday season can be hard for the LGBTQ community who may often not have strong family support at younger ages. How does this manifest among our elders?
Boyle: It is just sad, sad, sad. All my gentlemen are lonely with very little extended family. One of the men is alienated from most of his family because of his orientation. Without his pets he says there would be no reason for him to be alive.
Kerr: What's coming up in 2015 for SAGE/Persad?
Boyle: Wonderful stuff I hope! A space to call our own and use in whatever creative ways we want! We will have access to the new kitchen and dinning room and can look at lunch programs, morning coffee groups, etc. All ideas and suggestions are welcome.
Thank you to Persad Center and Kathi Boyle for going the extra mile to help this last-minute holiday cheer project succeed.
If you are interested in supporting the work of SAGE, you can find information on the Persad Center website. Donations for SAGE services in Western Pennsylvania can also be made online to help brighten the holidays and beyond for our community elders.