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L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center receives grant to fund programs for LGBT seniors

by Zamna Avila
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Oct 19, 2009

Joe Wolffe mourned the end of his 32-year relationship for more than year. But one day, he decided to dust himself off, get up and embark upon a new social life.

As it often happens, friends in one social group lead Wolffe to meet new people in other groups. And that is how he made his way to the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center.

"It's given me a life, which I did not have," Wolffe, 79, said. "It's like family. For an old person like me, you can't ask for better."

The Center offers social activities, educational workshops, intergenerational programs and a variety of other services for seniors.

Wolffe takes an exercise class two times a week, participates in a writing workshop, volunteers and is part of an acting class. He said his decision to become involved with the Center's activities also gave him the strength to "come out" to friends and family as a gay man.

"I wasn't out until I got involved with the Center," Wolffe, a retired computer data assistant, said. "I owe a lot to being involved and being active here."

The Center recently received more than $380,000 from the U.S. Administration on Aging to expand its Seniors Services Department.

"I had been looking for funding for our seniors for quite some time," Arielle Rosen, director of Senior Services at the Center, told EDGE. "When I heard about this funding, I thought there could not be a better fit."

Congress discussed the Community Innovations for Aging in Place initiative in 2006 when it reauthorized the Older Americans Act. Federal lawmakers requested the Administration Aging assess the barriers that make it difficult for older populations to age in their own homes and avoid institutionalization. Congress disbursed money for the initiative earlier this year.

The AoA set up a funding competition for non-profits that either had been serving or were interested in serving seniors. Applicants were asked to come up with innovative and creative solutions to address independent living issues impacting older adults.

"The federal government is the biggest founder of seniors but has given practically nothing to support LGBT seniors," Michael Adams, executive director of Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE,) said. "It's a big break through; a first step, but a step in the right direction."

Greg Case, program and policy analyst for the AoA, said Adams' conclusion is not necessarily accurate. Case stressed he feels other federal agencies have funded LGBT organizations in the past--the AoA also has given money to state offices on aging in states across the country that have, in turn, earmarked it to fund services for LGBT elders.

"It's probably not the first time our money has been used to serve older gays and lesbians," Case said. "It's the first time we have given the grant ourselves directly to an LGBT organization, and we are very, very happy about that."

Case, who is gay, added an independent panel reviewed more than 200 applications and chose the Center and 13 other organizations from different parts of the country.

"We have a population of people with particular needs and that population has been ignored in the federal government. There needs to be funding for senior programs like this throughout the country."

The review panel considered the Center identified a very specific problem that outlined how there is nothing that cohesively brings together the older and frail LGBT population--and outreach to them remains very difficult. The Center proposed solutions to moving LGBT seniors from isolation to connections that augmented already existing programs. The organization operates health clinics, affordable housing and social programs and their partnerships reinforced the panel's confidence on how the Center's commitment to meeting its goals.

"There is not a lot going on for older LGBT populations and we need models like this to really see if we can learn how they can best be served," Case said as he quoted one of the reviewers.

The Center has provided a variety of services to LGBT seniors for some time with the help of private individuals, organizations and community partnerships. Much of the population the Center serves comes through a partnership with Triangle Square, an affordable housing complex in the Hollywood.

Advocacy, Medicare workshops, flu shots, programs such as the Forever Young Crowd, a senior performance group and the Senior Youth Photo Project, which teams up seniors, youth and professionals to learn, do activities and present their photographic work, are among some of the services the Center already provides.

"This is good stuff and helping us understand things that we normally won't have information about is all good," Wolffe said about a recent HMO workshop.

The grant will help the Center continue these services and plans to provide training to local facilities to ensure they are welcoming to LGBT seniors. The Center plans to hire an additional staff member for case management and another person for training programs.

"I have no doubt that there are hundred of senior centers in L.A. County and we will be swarmed with requests," Rosen said. "The Administration on Aging notified us that we would receive this funding Sep. 30 and they said they would release those funds that same day, you literally hit the ground running."

The first training took place in Norwalk on Oct. 16. It included information on terminology, statistics, documentation language, such as including a partner option on a facility's forms, and conflict resolutions.

About 80 percent of gay and lesbian seniors do not have partners, a rate that is two and a half times higher than their heterosexual partners. They are also roughly four times less likely to have children.

"We have a population of people with particular needs and that population has been ignored in the federal government," Adams said. "There needs to be funding for senior programs like this throughout the country."

Besides the legal and institutionalized discrimination, LGBT seniors face other unique challenges. Statistics provided by the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force indicate LGBT elders are two-thirds more likely to live alone.

"We need to share this information (so that people understand) where these seniors are coming from; the baggage of homophobia from a lifetime of homophobia," Rosen said. "The reality is that LGBT seniors are fearful of mainstream centers. It is helpful for us to engage in that discourse. It's an ongoing, not just snap your fingers."

AoA funded the Center and the other beneficiaries for three years with upfront money for the first year out the $5 million with the promise if Congress continues to provide funding for the initiative they will give second- and third-year funding for the recipients. Case said he anticipates that Congress will continue to appropriate funds.

Wolffe said he is overjoyed over the news the Center received the grant. And he added he would like to convince the organization to throw a party to celebrate.

"I've met a lot of gay friends I didn't know before," Wolffe said. "When I come over here I always get a 'hi,' I always get a smile and sometimes I even get a hug, which I need."

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