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One More Battle

Gay boomers, who fought discrimination and confronted AIDS, face a new fight as they grow old

The Middle Ages

Staying young, growing old and what happens in between

April 01, 2007|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Sun Reporter

But few can afford to live in such communities, and there are none in Maryland. The gay community offers opportunities for social networking and support through such groups as Prime Timers and Senior Pride in Baltimore.

Prime Timers is an international social group for gay men over the age of 40. During the past three years, the Baltimore chapter has grown from six to 40 members who gather to hear lectures, go to movies, museums and plays and enjoy potluck dinners. President Montie Biven, 49, describes it as something akin to a gay senior citizen center.

"We promote social welfare, educational and cultural activities, which get our members out of their homes to share experiences with others like themselves," he says.

Psychologist Tracey Gersh started the Senior Pride discussion groups when she discovered that the Baltimore area lacked programs serving aging gay and lesbians. Participants talk about a variety of topics including retirement strategies, travel and what's playing at the Charles Theatre.

"I think that those people who have a positive social support system manage prejudice and discrimination better. Those who are "out" manage stresses better," says Gersh, who heads behavioral health at Chase-Brexton Health Services.

"People who are still in the closet have a great fear of people finding out. When they think of a nursing home, which will now be their home, it can be scary. It means that everyone will see their personal things: Their books and pictures and photographs [that may present them as gay]. For many people, home has been the one place they didn't really have to hide."

African-Americans who are gay and lesbian face the challenge of overcoming multiple cultural biases as they age, says Rickie Green, the 50-year-old founder and CEO of The Portal, a Baltimore center.

"We provide support services for the African-American same-gender-loving community," he says. "If you're HIV, gay and black, it's like a triple threat. And then on top of that, you can often add class discrimination."

One of Green's friends worries about the wellbeing of his uncle, who is gay and living in a local nursing home.

"This elderly individual is somewhat flamboyant," Green says. "The concern is that the staff may not be as receptive to his needs, such as communication. Elderly seniors have unique emotional needs. They like to have dialogues with others about their issues and their lives. So who does this gentleman talk about his past to?"

Some homophobic staff members may refuse to give gay residents sponge-baths and avoid other customary forms of personal care, Green says.

Amber Hollibaugh of the Gay and Lesbian Task Force has received complaints of staff not delivering food on time to gay and lesbian residents and not cleaning their rooms thoroughly. She's even heard of heterosexual nursing home residents receiving sub-par care just because their middle-aged children are gay.

"Those kind of situations make you say 'Should I not mention that I'm an LGBT person? Should I say my partner is my sister or my cousin?'" Hollibaugh says. "It's not an obvious answer, not when it might have blowback for somebody like an elderly relative that you love so much. Then the next step is to think, 'If this is what happens when I put my mother in there, what would happen to me?'"

Susan Feeney, spokeswoman for American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living, says the long-term care industry is committed to meeting the "unique needs" of every patient and resident.

And Jamison Gosselin, spokesman for Sunrise Senior Living communities, says "We recognize that personal individual factors like sexual orientation or religion or race need to be respected. ... If staff members cannot respect someone's individuality, they need to find a new place to work."

Sunrise Senior Living, Inc. runs more than a dozen independent living and long-term care communities in Maryland.

"If a place says it's 'inclusive,' does that mean it's inclusive for a person who's gay but doesn't make anyone nervous about it, or that it's inclusive for a gay man who crosses his leg, waves his wrist and tells campy stories at the dinner table in the cafeteria?" Hollibaugh says.

Part of her job, she says, is to educate staffs at facilities that serve the elderly. She provides them with "cultural competency" training about LGBT seniors and their "constructed" families. Meanwhile, she also reminds staff that older Americans retain their right to have sexual relationships -- even in nursing homes.

She believes that, as activists, LBGT boomers are well qualified to revolutionize elder care.

"Because of discrimination, because of the AIDS epidemic, we've learned how to create family and tradition and care outside of traditional institutions," she says.

"Ironically, I think the way we've been treated has given us knowledge about how to confront those institutions -- and how to change them."

linell.smith@baltsun.com

Networking information

For more information about the Senior Pride discussion groups, contact Tracey Gersh at 410-545-4481, ext. 2412.

For information about Prime Timers, visit the Web site at geocities.com/primetimersbalto, or e-mail PrimeTimersBalto @wmconnect.com.

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