GLBT Retirement Communities on the Rocks

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Sunday October 30, 2011

It seemed like a good idea a few years ago, but now some gay retirement communities are either in financial trouble, while others haven't gotten off the ground, the New York Times reported on Oct. 28.

Acceptance of gay individuals and their families has grown rapidly in recent years, but that shift in attitudes is largely generational. Younger Americans are much more likely to accept their GLBT peers, whereas older Americans are more likely to cling to stereotypes, anti-gay sentiments, and the biases to which those things can lead.

Indeed, some gay elders have faced harassment, threats, and rejection at the hands of their fellow residents in nursing homes, not to mention unsympathetic and judgmental treatment, and even neglect, from health care workers--all because they are sexual minorities.

An October 2007, New York Times article reported that GLBT elders frequently encounter homophobia, social isolation, and even abuse in elder care facilities. One senior citizen named Gloria Donadello, a lesbian in her 80s who came out to her fellow residents at an assisted living facility in Santa Fe, New Mexico, found herself frozen out of the limited social fabric of the facility. It was isolating; it drove her, the Times article said, into a depression.

The same article recounted how a gay man in a senior care facility in an East Coast city was removed from the general population of healthy, lucid seniors because other residents, and their families, protested his presence. The man was warehoused in a section of the facility for patients suffering from dementia. Before more suitable accommodations could be arranged for him, the man, who had no family, hung himself.

A 2011 documentary titled "Gen Silent" examined the crisis of GLBT elders by following six Boston-area residents in their dealings with a health care system (as well as family members) that often seemed less than sympathetic.

"Many who won the first civil rights victories for generations to come are now dying prematurely because they are reluctant to ask for help and have too few friends or family to care for them," text at the website for the film's director, Stu Maddox, said.

"Gen Silent shows the disparity in the quality of paid caregiving from mainstream care facilities committed making their LGBT residents safe and happy, to places where LGBT elders face discrimination by staff and bullying by other seniors," the text added.

The Oct. 28 Times article recounted how residents at a Santa Fe-based GLBT retirement community, RainbowVision, have become disillusioned after the community opened five years ago. A link to the Santa Fe Reporter led to an article in that publication detailing how residents of RainbowVision were being charged more and more for fees, even as the services they were provided declined. RainbowVision eventually filed for bankruptcy.

Part of the problem is the economic meltdown. A stagnation, and in some parts of the country a decline, in real estate and development has meant that revenue the creators of such retirement communities envisioned was not available. For some retirement communities, that's led to financial crises, while other projects have withered on the vine.

The New York Times noted that "such communities in Austin, Tex., Boston and in the Phoenix area never opened because of a lack of finances. A development near Portland, Ore., is struggling at 25 percent of capacity, and another near Sarasota, Fla., has--like RainbowVision--filed for bankruptcy."

The head of Services and Advocacy for G.L.B.T. Elders (SAGE), Michael Adams, called the trend "very concerning." SAGE recently announced that it had won a contract with the city of New York to open what will be the city's "first full-time center for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) older adults," an Oct. 19 SAGE media release noted.

"SAGE the country's oldest and largest organization dedicated to improving the lives of LGBT older adults," the release added. "The SAGE Center, slated to open in January 2012, will include program sites in all five New York City boroughs--bringing a comprehensive array of services and support to LGBT elders throughout the city.

"In addition to the robust array of programs SAGE currently provides at the LGBT Community Center and SAGE Harlem, the new Center will offer hot meals, programs covering issues from health and wellness to workplace skills, comprehensive social services, a wide range of social activities, and much more," added the release.

But a center for GLBT seniors is not the same thing as a residential community where older gays--the same people who fought for equality during a time when being openly gay could carry significant legal and social penalties, as well as taking a high emotional and physical toll--can spend their final years in peace and dignity.

"In a study released in April by the National Senior Citizens Law Center, many older gay men and lesbians and their family members reported instances of mistreatment at long-term care centers," the Times reported.

SAGE, too, compiled at report, published last year, which documents anti-gay abuse of elders at nursing homes.

The economic downturn has affected elder care community developments in other ways. For one thing, the article noted, the ailing economy discourages many older Americans, gay as well as straight, from selling the houses where they raised families and moving to locales where the climate (social as well as weather-wise) might be easier on them.

But some older GLBTs worry that an inability to move forward in their golden years could mean a drastic step backwards--into the closet once more.

That was a fate one RainbowVision resident, John Wojtkowski, speculated might be in store when he spoke with the New York Times. "Without RainbowVision, there's no other place to go," he said.

Younger gays are less likely than their older counterparts to be alienated from their families, and they also exhibit a desire to form marriages and families of their own that older gays may has eschewed in their own youth.

Because gay elders often lack family support systems, they may face financial and logistical hurdles to accessing quality living situations that they cannot overcome on their own. Moreover, the myth of gays being on the whole wealthier than heterosexuals is, largely, just that: a myth. On average, gays make less money than do their heterosexual counterparts.

That personal lack of resources together with the general state of the economy could go a long way toward accounting for why no major shift in GLBT-specific eldercare housing has yet taken place, even though the baby boomer generation is now hitting retirement age. the baby boomers are a large cohort, and are politically and socially significant; like any other demographic, they include a certain percentage of GLBTs.

Mathematically speaking, GLBT elders should, on the strength of their numbers alone, be a force to be reckoned with--except that many of them, terrorized by an anti-gay culture from decades ago, may never have emerged from the closet.

For others, numbers of a different sort--money--exert a tyranny over their life choices even as the years grow short. Money also dictates what the market will provide, and to whom. Taken all together, these factors suggest it's not so surprising after all if GLBT retirement communities have not become the booming trend that early entrepreneurs had hoped for.

"For the low income, obviously there's no money in it, so if you're a for-profit developer this is not what you want to do," Mark Supper, executive director of Gay and Lesbian Elder Housing, told EDGE in a May 13, 2010, article. "In the criteria to acquire funds, you have to have a lot of development experience and you're also a landlord and social service provider. There's a lot of bureaucracy, in a sense, in running these things."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.