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Add A Little Gray To Your Rainbow with Boston’s LGBT Aging Project

by Antoinette Weil

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Sunday October 14, 2012

Mention Pride, and most people envision gay boys in Speedos and young butch lesbians intersecting in a sea of rainbows, music, and love. What you may not picture is a group of 60-80-year-olds, wrinkles and gray hair in tow, riding the Pride wave. But they're there.

For many years the LGBT elder population has been under the radar and out of the public eye, invisible in both mainstream elder services and in the LGBT community. This revelation is precisely what prompted the formation of the LGBT Aging Project, a Boston-based nonprofit dedicated to ensuring equal access to benefits and services for older LGBT adults and bridging the generational gap in the LGBT community.

"When I first started, there was no visible elder LGBT representation," said LGBT Aging Project Assistant Director Bob Linscott. "Even if we do focus on youth, you don't disappear when you turn 35."

The LGBT Aging Project has made this once invisible population visible, vocal, and part of a national movement.

Gay Seniors, Hidden From the Community

We all know that gay people exist and that, as a rule, people age. So why have the LGBT elders remained unseen for so long? This is a cultural phenomenon of sorts that has roots in discrimination.

When you envision the average heterosexual elder, they typically have family support from spouses, children and even grandchildren. And their social support systems may include senior centers or faith centers. But for LGBT seniors, it tends to be a different story.

Marriage equality is a new luxury, one that was not afforded to the current generations of LGBT elders. Generally, LGBT elders don’t have spouses or children and are 70 percent more likely to age alone than their heterosexual peers. And often the typical social supports don’t quite work for this population. Many have been shunned by churches and feel uncomfortable in the predominantly hetero senior centers.

"This generation has faced so much discrimination, fear, violence and lifelong stigma that they often feel distrustful of mainstream organizations," said Linscott.

This lack of support and concerns about care has led to a troubling trend of older LGBT people going back in the closet.

"For many of these folks, being invisible was the best survival instinct," said LGBT Aging Project Director Lisa Krinsky. "Because you don’t see this demographic, it can be challenging to convince people that these issues matter."

And the Aging Project has set out to do just that.

The Aging Project has been highly involved in intergenerational work in the LGBT community, organizing events to showcase the elder generations at Pride and having youth volunteers at the community meal programs.

Linscott, who recruits freshman Boston University students to volunteer at the meal sites, says that it has been a mutually beneficial relationship.

"The youth volunteers are so interested in these people and their stories, and in turn the seniors are excited and so appreciative," said Linscott.

The Aging Project has been hard at work giving LGBT elders a voice.

"Over the past 10-12 years, we’ve been able to make LGBT aging part of a national movement," said Krinsky.

The Aging Project’s Policy Committee, dedicated to administrative and legislative policies that effect Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender elders, played an instrumental role in the passing of the Mass Health Equality Bill. Because of their work educating citizens, legislators and providers, same-sex couples in Massachusetts can now enjoy the same Medicaid benefits as their heterosexual peers.

Providing Training to Service Providers Via The Open Door Task Force

Some of the Aging Project’s most important work is the training they provide to mainstream elder service providers.

"Anti-discrimination policies are a real pet peeve of mine," said Krinsky. "It basically says ’We won’t be overtly discriminate towards you.’ But it doesn’t create a welcoming or positive environment."

"Slapping a rainbow sticker on the door and saying ’come on in’ isn’t enough," echoed Linscott.

The Aging Project has created it’s Open Door Task Force, a training and consultation program to ensure that institutions have the capacity and ability to serve LGBT elders, clients and caregivers with dignity and respect. The Aging Project works in collaboration with mainstream elder organizations to examine their inclusiveness, conduct educational seminars and training sessions with staff and provide continuous support until the organization has established a welcoming inclusive environment.

Visibility and awareness of this population are central to the mission of The LGBT Aging Project, but the truth of the matter is it’s not just about LGBT elders, it’s for them. The Aging project aims to promote a healthy and strong community for LGBT elders.

"People can become a little reclusive in old age," said Tom Peltier, who has been involved with the Aging Project for about a year. "It’s good to get out and see people and go to luncheons; it’s healthy."

The community meal services, which are the first-ever federally funded congregate meal programs, take place in eight locations around the state and provide a social gathering place for LGBT elders. The Aging Project also provides a number of services including healthy aging programs, memory training, and caregiver and bereavement support groups.

Peltier, who has no family in the Boston Area, began treatment for a medical illness and found that the mainstream hospital support groups weren’t his cup of tea.

"The hospital groups can be very close-mouthed. I didn’t feel comfortable talking openly to people who weren’t gay," said Peltier.

Joanie Lanzerio, who got involved with the LGBT Aging Project three years ago after retiring, said that she was pleasantly surprised by the events and services offered. "You can’t put a value on the sense of community, of knowing you’re not alone, that there are people there to help you," said Lanzerio. "Whether it be a health issue, a legal question, or dealing with the loss of a loved one, the support available is invaluable."

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