Over 65,000 LGBTQ seniors live in Michigan alone, and black members of the community are likelier to face discrimination in health care and senior housing, and isolation.
It’s that special season when we often think about those in need. But year after year, there is one group that is easily overlooked by the spirit of giving: our elderly neighbors, especially LGBTQ seniors of color. To be sure, it isn’t easy to age in this society, no matter who you are.
As seniors live longer, they often outlive their own resources – and the financial and emotional resources of their families to care for them. But LGBTQ seniors face even more complicated challenges. Because many came of age before their unions were recognized by law in some states, they don’t have access to partner benefits.
Often their life partners are excluded from everything from medical decision-making to inheritance, and some nursing homes refuse to allow same-sex partners to room together. Some LGBTQ seniors find themselves going back into the closet in order to avoid rampant homophobia in the health care and senior care systems.
Those who came out when they were younger may have been rejected by family and friends, forcing them to create new families with their peers. These chosen families, however, may lack intergenerational relationships. As LGBTQ seniors age, the friends that they’ve relied upon for years are aging, too. Whatever issues LGTBQ seniors face, they are multiplied when applied to a person of color.
According to Dr. Karen Fredriksen Goldsen, lead researcher on the 2019 “Aging With Pride: National Health, Aging and Sexuality/Gender Study,” blacks experience the highest levels of lifetime LGBTQ-related discrimination and lower levels of household income, education, affirmation of their identities and social support compared to non-Hispanic white LGBTQ seniors.
Keisha Watkins-Dukhie runs SAGE Metro Detroit’s Friendly Caller Program, which helps aging LGBTQ seniors overcome these obstacles. SAGE is a national organization founded in 1978 to advocate for and support LGBTQ elders. Since 2015, SAGE Metro Detroit has been serving Macomb, Wayne, Washtenaw and Oakland counties from its offices at Affirmations in Ferndale and the Hannan Center in Detroit.
Through the Friendly Caller Program, trained volunteers agree to call their clients three times a week and chat for at least 15 minutes. Once a connection is made, the pair can talk as often and for as long they’d like. “There are an estimated 60,000 LGBT adults over the age of 65 in Michigan,” Watkins-Dukhie says. “The Friendly Caller Program can’t reach all of them, but for the ones we reach, it really helps ease the feelings of abandonment and isolation.”
Sam is a 61-year-old gay man and retired autoworker. Although his family stood by him after he came out, he has lost many family members over the years. A shy person who was never prone to joining groups or going to clubs, he became increasingly isolated as he aged.
“A lot of times I’m bored and home by myself,” says Sam, who found out about the Friendly Caller Program through another senior. “We talk about anything – how are we doing, how are my doctor’s appointments. It’s just nice to hear someone’s voice to call and say hello.”
While a few phone calls a week may not be the sole cure for chronic isolation, connection is a powerful antidote to depression. A 2016 survey of the policy needs of LGBTQ seniors conducted by the UCLA School of Law revealed that social support among sexual minorities is associated with better health, reduced stigma, decreased depression and a higher quality of life.
“One person called us around the holidays last year,” Watkins-Dukhie says. “With no contact with his family, it’s sadder for him around that time. When we started checking in on him, he wasn’t going out and participating in anything. By May, he was going to groups and getting outside. We’ve seen a (180) in his demeanor. Now he’s a caller in the program.”
During this season of giving and as we approach the holidays, it can be important to give your resources to help others in need. “But to make a real impact on our seniors, all we need is a little bit of your time,” she says.
To volunteer for the SAGE Metro Detroit’s Friendly Caller Program, call 248-567-2363 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Desiree Cooper is the author of Know the Mother.