A photograph on his desk at SAGE’s New York offices reminds Bill Gross of what the organization’s Friendly Visitor program is all about.
The photograph is of Douglas, a gay man in his late 60s, who Gross developed a friendship with in his early 20s. Over the years, the two grew closer and after Douglas’ partner of 50 years died; Gross stepped-in to serve as primary caregiver. That’s when Gross was introduced to SAGE’s Friendly Visitor program.
“Douglas, like so many LGBT older adults, was pretty isolated,” Gross recalled.
A volunteer from SAGE’s Friendly Visitor program arrived weekly to spend time with Douglas. They talked, watched movies and played cards, Gross said.
“I saw first-hand what joy that brought to Douglas and also what joy that brought to me as a caregiver that I knew this volunteer was there once a week, someone I knew and trusted and that he was in good hands,” Gross said.
Douglas has since passed, but his photograph reminds Gross of a purpose fulfilled.
“It’s sort of a love letter to him knowing what this program can do for a client,” Gross said.
SAGE (Services & Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Elders) asserts to be the world’s largest and oldest organization dedicated to improving the lives of LGBT older adults. It has five centers operating in the boroughs of New York.
Founded in 1979, SAGE’s Friendly Visitor Program was specifically created to support older LGBT Americans. The program matches older LGBT adults with volunteers to alleviate isolation, help with errands, meals, medications, provide technical assistance and establish a link to other elders in the community.
“It’s one of the best programs SAGE has and is still going strong,” said Jerry Chasen, SAGE’s director of legacy planning. “It’s a program that has been proven very successful.”
In New York, many of the volunteers are younger and responding to a sense of gratitude.
“Very often they come to us because they are part of the LGBT community and very interested in paying back these generations before them that have paved the way,” Gross said. “They realize they have freedoms because of these generations and there’s a real activist feeling of ‘I want to support the generations that have come before.’”
The U.S. Census Bureau has never measured America’s LGBT population, however SAGE notes there have been reports of upwards of three million LGBT adults over the age of 50. Many LGBT elders have no children or immediate family, Gross said.
“These Friendly Visitor volunteers are one of the only means of social support,” said Gross. “It’s really important for this community.”
Gross, 47, has worked at SAGE for five years and served in a similar capacity prior at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. He oversees all of SAGE’s Friendly Visitor programs. In Broward County, the program is coordinated with the South Florida Institute on Aging.
Volunteers must pass a background check, commit to one year of service, complete trainings and monthly reports, attend meetings and maintain contact with staff supervisor. For more information, contact Patti Lynn at email@example.com or via telephone at 954-484-7117, ext. 123.
Lynn told SFGN she has 6 people that have signed up so far. She would like to have 12 before she presents the first training which she hopes to schedule at the end of September.
Watch a video on the Friendly Visitor program here:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ry3LYM2Sh0E