Social isolation is nothing new for older members of the LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community, but COVID has made it all the more acute. It has also triggered painful memories of the AIDS epidemic that robbed the community of friends, family, and potential partnerships.
COVID has hit hard, says Angie Perone, executive director of SAGE Metro Detroit, a training, informational, social and advocacy organization that serves older adults in the LGBTQ+ community.
As it is, LGBTQ+ seniors don’t have much support in the community and often rely on “families of choice,” close friends who become their caregivers when they need them. LGBTQ+ adults are twice as likely to live alone and four times less likely to have children, says Perone.
“If your support network is older adults, you’re navigating health issues together. During COVID, you don’t have your support network. Many adults were not able to leave their home, so there was a big issue accessing food,” says Perone.
SAGE has delivered food during the pandemic, created virtual social hours and a “tech buddy” program to distribute iPads. A friendly caller program the organization started in 2017 has turned out to be a blessing for older adults, who are paired with volunteers for weekly conversation. It has helped reduce the negative effects of social isolation – and it’s brought a lot of cross-generational connections, says Perone. The program now has 50 participants.
SAGE is continuing the work it has always done – making the world a more inclusive, loving place for LGBTQ+ seniors, who face daily challenges that are marked by social rejection.
SAGE offers culturally responsive training to service providers in the aging network and companies that are committed to inclusiveness and to implementing antidiscrimination policies in the workplace. It works with senior center staff and leadership to help them “improve space not just for LGBTQ+ adults but for older adults in general who are excluded in the dining hall,” says Perone.
“Participants feel really isolated from senior centers or other places where seniors go,” she says. “Bullying is a big issue among older adults. You add that to prejudice, bias and lack of awareness, and a lot of seniors don’t go to these places.”
Housing is another problematic space for LGBTQ+ seniors, says Rachel Crandall Crocker, cofounder and executive director of Transgender Michigan.
SAGE relies on its community partners, like the Area Agency on Aging 1-B, to promote inclusivity and tolerance.
The agency’s specialists in the resource center, the first call most people make, had extensive training in working with LGBTQ+ seniors over the phone in order to become more “LGBTQ+-affirming,” to let people know they are safe and that “they will have a positive experience speaking with us,” says Angela Lippard, Resource Center manager and a member of the SAGE board of directors.
“There are a lot of barriers to accessing services for the LGBTQ+ community that are exacerbated by aging,” she says, and the training helps to raise awareness that “some older adults feel they need to go back in the closet because they don’t feel safe receiving services.”
The agency has mentored other Area Agencies on Aging in Michigan to help them become more culturally responsive to the older LGBTQ+ community, she says.
“It’s important to understand that LGBTQ+ older adults have experience throughout the years and situations throughout the decades where they’ve had difficulty accessing services. It’s important to understand those barriers still exist,” says Lippard.
Judy Lewis of Southfield is a SAGE trainer who is also a member of the LGBTQ+ community. She speculated that for many of her peers, COVID feels like post-traumatic stress disorder.
“People are being bombarded with fear of death and COVID, just as they were in fear of being outed,” she says.
For more information about SAGE Metro Detroit, call 734-681-0854 or visit Sage Metro Detroit at sagemetrodetroit.org.
Content provided by the Area Agency on Aging 1-B.