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January 31, 2012

Golden years? Many older gays and lesbians worry about their futures

The Miami Herald
By Ana Veciana-Suarez
They were the pioneering generation, the ones who protested during the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York, marched on Washington 10 years later to demand civil rights and fought for recognition during the AIDS epidemic. But now as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender baby boomers age, many worry about social isolation, discrimination from healthcare workers and a social service agencies and a government that has yet to meet their needs.

"LGBT boomers share many of the same concerns as other boomers," says John Migliaccio, director of research and gerontology for MetLife Mature Market Institute. "But you have to add a layer that other boomers don't face -- and that's their concern about discrimination."

It's a concern that's well founded. Most LGBT boomers have faced some degree of prejudice. They came of age at a time when their sexual orientation was considered a mental illness and, in some states, a crime. Many became estranged from their families when they stepped out of the closet. Others lost friends. And though society has become more accepting, some still feel they must remain private about their sexual orientation, particularly at the office.

The LGBT senior population is expected to double to 3 million in the next 20 years. Most don't have biological children. They're less likely to be in a relationship and more likely to be estranged from relatives. This, Migliaccio adds, may make aging more difficult, because 80 percent of all caregiving for the elderly is provided by unpaid family members.

It's certainly something Damian Pardo has thought about. Pardo, 48, a financial planner, is single. He exercises and eats well, has plenty of friends, but is not sure who would care for him during a lengthy or terminal illness. "There's no one really on my speed dial to resolve those kind of issues for me," he says. "But I do have a close-knit set of friends and I would probably call them before calling my family."

A 2010 MetLife study found that, like their straight counterparts, LGBT baby boomers were struggling to finance retirement, figuring out how to provide for family once they're gone and working out end-of-life care issues. But because the federal government and most states do not grant their relationships legal recognition, a homosexual couple's financial situation tends to be more precarious. In 2003, the Government Accountability Office found that more than 1,100 federal rights, benefits and privileges are based on marital status and therefore not afforded to same-sex couples.

This is certainly a concern for Richard Milstein, a Miami attorney. He and his partner of 10 years, Eric Hankin, a public school teacher, have made sure their estate planning is in order. But if Milstein, who has two adult children with his ex-wife, were to die first, Hankin won't be eligible for Social Security spousal benefits -- though the couple married in Iowa two years ago.

"My siblings have children and there's a certain expectation that these children will take care of them," Hankin says. "I don't have any children, but I'm fortunate to have stepchildren and we have a good relationship."

But even that kind of relationship can be tenuous, whether or not the survivor is gay or straight. Milstein says that's one of his concerns if he outlives Hankin.

"I'm older so my thought is I will go first," he says. "In that case, I worry if he will be able to continue that relationship" with Milstein's children and a new grandchild.

For LGBT singles, it is even more important "to dot all our i's and cross all our t's," says Amy Rolnick, 59, a retired library administrator. "We have to make sure to plan. We carry the scars of the HIV holocaust and the smell of the closet with us into old age."

No matter how long a gay or lesbian couple has been together or married, they may still hit pockets of resistance. In 2007, the story of how Janice Langbehn was prevented from spending the last hours with her longtime partner made national news. Her partner had ended up in Miami's Ryder Trauma Center just as the couple and their children were going on a cruise. Though Langbehn had a power of attorney, she saw her partner very briefly, and only when a priest was administering last rites. Ryder later apologized and this no longer occurs.

Langbehn's case is not unusual, however. Rolnick was in a serious car accident several years ago. Her partner at the time was kicked out of the emergency room. "Many of us have stories like that," she says.

Recent federal rules now allow hospital and other kinds of visitation for same-sex partners, but some forms of discrimination continue. Milstein, 65, and Hankin, 53, know of a longtime gay couple who ended up in different care facilities after their families moved them apart. Another friend fled a homophobic nursing home.

In situations where LGBT seniors need special housing, such as a nursing home or an assisted living facility, "it is difficult to find something that is welcoming and supportive," says Michael Adams, executive director of SAGE, a national organization dedicated to improving the lives of LGBT seniors. "As a result, the older the LGBT person is, the more likely he or she is to be closeted about his sexual identity."

A community's openness also becomes a factor in a move. Rolnick, who is leaving Miami because of the high cost of living, has bought a duplex in Savannah with a gay friend who is also single. Savannah, she says, is more open-minded than other cities in the south, and its LGBT community is mainstream enough to host a gay and lesbian film festival downtown.

"It's easy to talk about the progress, but no matter where I go or what I do, I'm always gauging how people may react," she says.

Some LGBT seniors return to the closet for fear of reprisals from fellow residents in facilities or disrespect from the people who should be caring for them. After a lifetime of fighting for equal rights, some decide it's better to be "out" in different degrees. This becomes clear when LGBT boomers are asked to go public about their experiences.

Two lesbian boomers -- one in a long-term relationship, another currently single -- turned down requests for interviews for fear of workers' and neighbors' reactions. 'I don't hide it and I'm not embarrassed," said one, "but I think it would hurt business. I'm discreet."

Pardo, the financial planner, says being gay is always an issue, regardless of age. "People may not say it to your face anymore, but they may tell one of your clients or somebody else who stands to gain from it in some way. I've worked in other places where people have complained and certain managers make it an issue."

Rolnick calls aging as a sexual minority "the double whammy. You're an old person in a young world and then you're marginalized because you're gay."

This kind of social isolation leads to greater rates of disability, depression and loneliness, according to a 2011 University of Washington study of LGBT seniors 50 years and older. These situations, the authors concluded, were "linked to poor mental and physical health, cognitive impairment, chronic illness and premature death."

At the same time, though, many LGBT boomers say being gay has helped them prepare better for aging because it has made them more resilient, self reliant and able to overcome adversity, according to the MetLife study.

"I think they're much more aware of the necessity for forward planning," says Migliaccio, of the Metlife Mature Market Institute.

Julio Capo, a Yale postdoctoral fellow who has studied and written about the LGBT movement, predicts gay boomers will transform the way society deals with older people in minority groups. He cites the slow but steady progress in acceptance during their lifetime, and how the homophobia of the Anita Bryant era in the 1970s actually prepared the community to better deal with the HIV/AIDS pandemic of the following decade.

"What will happen to them in the future will depend on what they fought for in the past," Capo says. "And the reality is they have left quite a legacy."

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