Older Adult LGBT Coalition members and event volunteers Kat LaTosch, Cornelius Wilson and Judy Lewis. BTL photo: AJ Trager

AGING: Living In The Spirit Of Now

Focusing On Older LGBT Isolation

AJ Trager

DETROIT - "Living in the spirit of now. What does that mean? Think about it. And I'm gonna just tell you something personal about me. I'm learning to get old, but I refuse to let that get the best of me," Cornelius Wilson, co-chair of the Older Adult Coalition and chairman for the Older Adult Summit said in a preliminary talk before the keynote speaker got on stage.

It was a compassionate, heart felt and engaging Saturday at the MSU Detroit Campus as older LGBT community members jointed together for the Fourth Annual LGBT Older Adult Summit.

The keynote speaker was Walter Woods, who currently heads AARP's Impact Program-Isolation effort to develop and implement high impact solutions for keeping struggling Americans, ages 50 and up, engaged as they age. Woods then led the room in dialogue, speaking about his work for the AARP Foundation.

There are two types of isolation that really affect the LGBT community, Woods noted. The first is the emotional component of loneliness that affects the body in chronic ways, and the second is connectedness to people and resources and how that translates to a higher quality of authenticity, also known to Woods as self-love and self-acceptance.

He said there are three major transition points in life: retirement, loss of a spouse and disconnectedness from family, whether that is blood or defined family. Staying connected helps us all live longer and being resilient and strong can only improve our lives as we age.

"He was afraid," Woods started, dropping his voice down a few notes and shifting his posture to rest a little more confidently, telling the story about his father's fall into isolation after the loss of Woods' mother. "He was afraid, because he no longer felt that he belonged to the world. That he had failed in some way because my mom had passed away. And he didn't really accept the fact that we are going to die. Death is a part of living, it is something that we have to embrace and that's okay. As long as we continue to live and don't give up, it's okay. "

He went on to talk about the importance of accepting ourselves and where people are in life, and to not judge too harshly those who choose to be isolated but instead find ways to help understand their decisions.

"I saw a lot of different solutions to how people live their lives and one solution that I really recognized is that first we really need to recognize each other as people, as humans first," Woods said. "We divide ourselves and we tend to look at one another in very different ways and that's fine, as long as you recognize that we're people."

The room stayed positive, taking the issue of isolation and conversationally focusing on ways to dismantle its hold on people, getting said people engaged and active again in their communities and in their own lives.

There is a professor down in Australia, Woods said with a more strict tone in his voice, who did a study and found that the effects of being socially isolated are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

The room of 85 attendees gasped.

"Health consequences that we are focusing on include increased cognitive decline, loss of impulse control, increased cardiovascular changes and higher risk of falls and hospitalizations," Wood said. "But, to the LGBT community, we are talking about people who are twice as likely to live alone if you are in this community that we are all a part of. Who face higher disability rates and struggle with economic security and higher poverty rates."

The audience then took hold of the mic, and the room practically lit up. Community members shared their experiences with doubt and their personal stories of isolation. These personal tales included taking care of a loved one and the drain that can have on one's social life, or how they found a new community to share and experience with, how bringing people together truly helped them.

"The only thing we really have in our lives is today," Woods smiled. "This is a group of seniors that I really want to get to know better because you really serve as what I consider flashlights, they go back into the community and put a light on those people that need a little help at understanding why they are fearful of growing old. It's something that we all do. Aging is a privilege. Not everyone gets to do it."

Following his presentation was a panel of four, two older LGBT and two allies who shared their life stories about coming out, being accepted by their family -- or not -- and where they were today. Then came lunch and a variety of workshops with topics such as "I'm Set In My Ways" by Kathryn Bartz and "Great Sex After 50," the male-identified presentation by Joe Kort and the female-identified presentation given by Kelli Weller.

"I can't begin to tell you how excited I was for the day," Judy Lewis, coordinator for the LGBT Older Adult Coalition, said. "And for the feedback. I've had people emailing and calling me, thanking me for insisting that they be there. Got a lot of new people who have never been to a summit before who are asking what they can do next. It's great!"

After speaking with attendees about how the event was going, the message was very clear: they loved it!

Anthony Holliday was sitting with two other volunteers, Eddie Neal and Richard Novak. They were wearing volunteer purple shirts listening to the smooth sound of Don Nadel playing the grand piano.

"The workshops and keynote speaker were both better than last year," Holliday said. "And the last workshop -- we just left [it] -- was very informational. It's very important for people to hear the stories. Because when I was up and coming we didn't hear them, we didn't have them. And even right now, we still have young people to this day that are still hiding. This summit is very important to this community. "

The Summit featured community guest speakers Charles Alexander, Letty Azar, Pat Baldwin, Kathryn Bartz, Paul Bridgewater, Atiba Cohen, Kathy Graham, Jay Kaplan, Joe Kort, Maria Messina, Don Nadel, Tammi Pollum, Kathryn Smolinski, Rev. Roland Stringfellow and Kelli Weller. This was the first year the AARP came on as a sponsor for the event, joining the Gay Elders of Southeast Michigan, the ACLU, The Detroit Area Agency on Aging, KICK, Senior Koffee Klatch, Between The Lines and the LGBT Older Adult Coalition.

To hear more about what the LGBT Older Adult Coalition is doing, visit their website at http://www.lgbtolderadults.com. Get connected with them on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/pages/LGBT-Older-Adult-Coalition/338640109489423.
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