The Grand Rapids Pride Center and the Area Agency on Aging of Western Michigan (AAAWM) are taking action for older LGBT adults thanks to a Michigan Health Endowment Fund grant. SAGE Metro Detroit, in partnership with the ACLU of Michigan, is leveraging the $400,000 to launch a statewide LGBT and Aging Initiative.
In Grand Rapids, the Initiative will support developing a directory of gay and supportive businesses, healthcare providers, and resources that specifically targets older lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender adults. In addition, the Grand Rapids Pride Center will offer trainings at area businesses and healthcare facilities so more LGBT-friendly resources will become available. Trainings have already been held at Arbor Circle, Meijer, Kent County Friend of the Court, and Farmers’ Insurance. The Grand Rapids Pride Center has provided a LGBTQ Resource Directory for all ages since 1988.
“With this program, there is very specific information for older adults,” says Larry DeShane Jr., center administrator of Grand Rapids Pride Center .
In addition, the grant is funding a campaign, “Today is THE DAY,” that encourages older LGBT adults to pick up the phone and call Grand Rapids Pride Center for help connecting with the services they need.
“This initiative really fits inside of our mission of ‘Empowering our LGBTQ community through supportive services and awareness,’” DeShane says. “Sometimes you need directed services. I’ll be 46 years-old this year. I’ll need this — very soon.”
DeShane shares that older LGBT folks face phenomenal hurdles here in Grand Rapids. For one, the State of Michigan offers limited legal protections from discriminatory treatment. While the Michigan Department of Civil Rights recently expanded protections through the Elliot Larsen Civil Rights Act, as soon as it was defined for enforcement, Attorney General Bill Schuette issued a formal opinion stating that its protections do not extend to LGBTQ persons.
With many living isolated lives, Michigan’s aging LGBT population often lacks access to appropriate medical and mental health care and other needed resources. Older LGBT folks lived through harsher times. Marriage was not an option. So, many lack the support that a family or partner bring other aging populations.
“They could never hold a partner’s hand in public. Marriage was never even a thought. Thanks to them, I have more,” DeShane says. “Eighty percent of care for older adults, in general, is done by family members … Many LGBT people from this older generation do not have children. If they do, they are four times more likely not to be involved with those children’s lives.”
Because they reasonably fear discrimination, LGBT people often hide their sexuality from their doctors. Therefore, the elderly among them may not get the health screenings that they need.
“We find that many LGBT older adults do not feel comfortable sharing their sexual orientation and/or gender identity and reach out for support only when they are enduring a health crisis,” says Jackie O’Connor, AAAWM executive director. “Not feeling accepted by your local community or personal healthcare provider increases the isolation experienced in LGBT seniors, leaving them at risk for serious health concerns.”
“Also, you’re less likely to tell your doctor the truth,” adds DeShane. “I have a gay doctor because I don’t have to educate him on my needs as a gay man.”
While Pilgrim Manor has recently been reaching out to the LGBTQ demographic, DeShane points out that most local assistive living and long-term healthcare facilities have religious affiliations — and no track record of working with the LGBTQ population. The costs of residential care are often too steep considering that most LGBTQ people are economically disadvantaged, as well.
“If you’re going in, you’re going into the closet,” he says. “I’ve heard accounts of nurses still double gloving and double masking when working with patients with HIV. I heard another account of a [gay man’s] roommate who got violent, screaming that he ‘didn’t want to share the room with a fag.’”
Homebound elderly LGBT people fear repercussions, as well. Many fear for their safety when home healthcare or home repair workers come into their homes. As Grand Rapids has a rising number of housing violations stemming from landlords refusing to rent to LGBTQ tenants, another fear is homelessness.
“A lot of time, they go back in the closet. They have to de-gay their homes,” DeShane says. “It’s quite rancid — to only live openly out for a third of your life and be safe. [Going back in the closet] leads to depression, suicide, suicidal ideation, riskier sexual behaviors, the potential of not protecting yourself, and higher risks for HIV.”
DeShane concludes that the entire Grand Rapids area community benefits when everyone, including its LGBTQ residents, has access to needed resources and care.
“One, you have happier, healthier, more well-adjusted older adults. Two, by reducing barriers to care, including mental health, you reduce stress on the infrastructure. Every time you make people healthier, you reduce costs for everybody. End of life is so much harder for marginalized communities. Why not work towards making it easier? That’s just the right thing to do.”
Those needing services can call Grand Rapids Pride Center, 616-458-3511, or Area Agency on Aging of Western Michigan, 616-456-5664.
Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor