Growing Old Gay: Q&A With SAGE’s Michael Adams
"Growing old isn't for sissies" they say. But sissies grow old, too and for LGBT elders, there are even more problems than for the rest of the world. We tend not to have children. We're separated from our families by geography or temperament. We sink into invisibility in a youth-obsessed world. Even retirement homes discriminate against us. We're still having sex--which means contracting (and, in many more cases, living with) HIV.
EDGE sat down with SAGE (Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders) Executive Director Michael Adams to talk about the unique issues facing gay men, lesbians and transgendered persons as we grow old. You better read this: If you're lucky, you're going to be there someday.
EDGE: If it's a youth-obsessed culture we live in today, that goes double in the gay world. Images of buff, chiseled men and "L Word," gym-built ladies totally dominate our community. Are we really even more ageist than the rest of the world?
Michael Adams: I'm torn on that question. It's a triuism among a lot of people that ageism is worse in the gay community. Relatively speaking, the gay community as we know it now has only been around for a few decades. We haven't really had time to have a history or tradition as other communities. So I think of it more that way. Here at SAGE, we rely on hundreds of volunteers in our programs., many of whom are young. So I'm not sure if it's any better or worse.
EDGE: What about isolation? We don't have kids, we live away from our families, we're often not partnered. Worse in our world?
MA: Isolation is an issue across the board in this country, especially acute for our constituency. LGBT adults of this generation are four times as likely not to have kids. They're much more likely to be disconnected from the families of their origins. Most older people are partnered, with kids, connected to siblings, nieces and nephews. So many of our folks don't have any of that.
EDGE: How is SAGE addressing that?
MA: If you look at our programs, our services for older adults, we first try to make sure they have what they need--Social security, benefits, good places to live, health care. Then we try to make sure they're socially engaged: execrcise, walks throughout the city, classes, etc.
EDGE: Gay retirement communities have been a hot topic in the gay and mainstream media, as has the hitherto-hidden problem of discrimination in nursing and retirement homes.
MA: There's a critical shortage of quality housing for elderly people in general in this country. Also, there's the additional problem of a place where we can be out and comfortable simply being who we are. When you put those two together, it's a real double whammy. We have seen emerged a very small number of LGBT communities. But the reality is that the vast, vast, vast majority will never live in those places. So we have to fundamentally challenge and open up the vast array of existing housing so that they are welcoming.
EDGE: With the drugs available, we're facing a problem that would have unthinkable 15 years ago: people living with HIV and AIDS into old age.
MA: Good point! SAGE is one of three partners in a new HIV and policy initiative funded by the MAC AIDS Fund. What we see with each year is a higher constituency with HIV. It's the growing and graying of the epidemic. So far, there's been no recognition in AIDS policy. We've joined with other groups like GMHC [Gay Men's Health Crisis] and CRIA [Community Initiative Research on AIDS] to push the federal government to address these issues.
EDGE: There's also the question of people seroconverting in their later years.
MA: Yes! One of the things we're going to do is convene HIV policy makers late in fall to really start to focus on this. Part of the challenge we face is a tremendous stereotype--the misconception that, when people get older, they stop having sex. They don't stop. They continue into their 60s, 70s, and 80s. When you have sex, you're concerned with HIV. Viagra makes it easier than ever to be sexually active as you get older. We've got our head in the sand about these issues. The numbers are up. We see it with our constituency.
EDGE: Older people might take risks because they're more willing to compromise in order to find partners. How do gay singles date when they feel they're too old for the bar scene or the Internet?
MA: SAGE for may years has been involved in intense daily crises: can't buy food, walk up stairs, etc. But there are many other elements to the quality of life. One is a relationship. We're doing a lot more with our constituents. It comes back to no place in our community for older people. A lot of our folks are not from the online generation. A lot of then don't want to be in bars, standing up for five hours. They've been there and done that.
EDGE: I think I caught you on the fly while you were in D.C. (Adams is based in New York). What are SAGE's policy initiatives there?
MA: We're investing significant time in what's happening with health care. We're working with AARP and other sister aging organizations to make sure President Obama and Congress address address the needs of minority seniors populations. I met in Washington with Kathy Greenlee, the assistant secretary for aging, on ways to provide for the needs of our constituency A strong concern is Medicaid and Social Security, two very important programs for seniors that still discrimnate against same-sex couples. Very, very damaging. When the federal government sponsors research on old people, which it does all the time, we're never included. When it funds senior service programs across the country, it has never funded LGBT programs.
EDGE: Oldsters aren't riding quietly off into the sunset anymore, are they?
MA: A lot of our constituents are still in the workforce into their 60s and 70s or want to get back. Some is from financial setbacks. This is a whole new area. We want to help older workers stay in the workforce, to defy the image of what it means to be older. Technology evolves so quickly, though. That's why we're starting computer training classes for older adults. It's really exciting. In the bigger picture, the whole country is graying, and businesses will have to adapt to an aging workforce.