Aging advocates debate assisted living options for LGBTs

While some push for training, others say facilities are not open to the option

by Jessica Carreras

When Michigan nonprofit Citizens for Better Care teamed up with Affirmations community center to begin work on a training program that would better the lives of LGBT residents in the state's assisted living and nursing homes, they didn't yet realize what would be their biggest obstacle: the facilities themselves.

More specifically, not a single leader in a facility they approached was interested in the training, or in hearing about the needs of their LGBT residents.

"(Nursing homes say) they don't want it," explains CBC Executive Director Laura Champagne. "They don't have an issue, you know? They have not identified any gay residents."

That's not to say, however, that gay residents don't exist. Therein lies one of the largest issues LGBT leaders are attempting to tackle regarding their aging population: providing them with safe, affordable options for living facilities as they age that will not put them in a situation where they face the possibility of being discriminated against -or worse -going back into the closet.

Aging coalition

Members of the recently formed LGBT aging coalition have been discussing the issue at their monthly meetings, debating whether it's better to go CBC's route -educating existing facilities -or work toward opening new living options that cater specifically to the LGBT community.

Most agree that the more practical option is working with homes and facilities that are already in existence. However, no one is quite sure how to create a list of homes that might be open to the idea, or how to go about training them.

"(We need to) find a way to provide training and resources to the current senior caregivers -both residential and in-home providers, "said Judy Lewis, executive director of the Jewish Gay Network of Michigan and member of the LGBT aging coalition. "There must be a way that we can generate a value for the consumer (the residential facility or agency) in a positive way. And we must have someone, somewhere, with enough clout to nudge these people into opening the door and listening to our message."

Jim Toy, a long-time activist from Ann Arbor who also meets with the coalition, believes that opening a LGBT-specific space would be great -but it doesn't provide the immediate solution to the problem at hand.

"The horror stories I hear and read dictate that we must do all we can to train owners, boards, administration and staff at existing facilities," he said. "Convincing existing facilities to permit, in fact to invite such trainings, is a paramount concern.

"Publicizing our existence and availability would be a first step."

But Champagne says that many facilities her organization has approached simply deny the existence of their LGBT residents. Because of their reluctance to participate, the CBC's training module is "pretty much stalled."

"We've tried to build parts of it into a training on intimacy," Champagne explains as an alternative approach to broaching the subject. "But the whole thing is focusing on the right of the residents to privacy and all that kind of stuff."

However, no matter what their residents' sexual orientation, Champagne says, "nursing home staff just find it abhorrent that some of their residents might want to go off and be intimate with each other."

An immediate housing option

While some figure out how to convince facilities that they need LGBT sensitivity training, others are taking matters into their own hands.

Detroit resident Mike recently shared with the coalition his own vision for LGBT senior living: he's opening a five-bedroom house called Sweet Home for exactly that purpose.

Sweet Home is located on Detroit's north side, and will provide -pending its tentative opening next year -an option for at least a few gay men in the area to live out their older lives in a safe environment. A place that assists them with daily needs like transportation, meals and care.

"My original intention was to have a home for sweet little old ladies but my roommate ... told me that he felt that I might serve the community better by having a facility for elderly gay men," Mike shared. "I started looking around for that type of thing to see how they had their program set up and I couldn't find anything. So I decided to start from scratch and see what I could put together."

Toy believes it's a combination of endeavors like Sweet Home and offering LGBT training will yield the best results.

"Creating an ITBLGQ-specific senior-living space in southeast Michigan is a must," Toy said. "I've been involved over the years in two attempts to do that. It necessitates a lot of time and money. So, while we try to find funding for a new space, we could engage in trainings."

Now, they just have to figure out how to get the trainings into facilities.

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