LGBT Aging: Harder and Easier Than you Might Think

by Nanfu Wang

Aging is challenging. Being LGBT is challenging. LGBT aging: challenge squared? It may make mathematical sense, but it’s not necessarily the experience of all aging gay and lesbian New Yorkers. Depending on what measurement scales you are using, aging as LGBT can be harder and easier.

With limited formal supports, lower marriage rates, and higher possibility of no children, LGBT older adults in NYC, home to the country’s largest LGBT population, rely mostly on the big family— their community and each other to cope with aging crisis and fulfill their care needs.

“The common fears they have are not that different from any other minority community,” said Suzy Rotholz, the director of Social Services at Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Elders (Sage), the national largest and oldest organization dedicated to improve the lives of LGBT seniors.  “They are afraid they are going to die alone. They are afraid they are going to be mistreated because they are alone. They are afraid they won’t get their healthcare and medical care needs met. They are afraid that people just won’t care about them, they will dismiss them because they are gay or lesbian elder adults.”

According to a survey conducted by The MetLife Mature Market Institute (MMI), the American Society on Aging (ASA), and the LGBT Aging Issues Network (LAIN), regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, LGBT seniors born between 1946 and 1964, like their heterosexual counterparts, also are worried about financing their retirement and have similar patterns of caregiving.

“It’s hard. Lesbian, gay, straight, or whatever, old is old,” said Barbara Police, 64, who has been out of the closet most of her adult life. Police and her wife Pat Slone married four years ago in Connecticut. Right after they saw the news on TV that same sex marriage became legal in Connecticut, Police proposed and they drive there the next day. As a native New Yorker, Police has had few troubles growing up as a lesbian as she was well accepted

Barbara Police, 64 (left) and Pat Slone (70) will celebrate their 37 year anniversary of being together

Barbara Police, 64 (left) and Pat Slone (70) will celebrate their 37 year anniversary of being together

both at home and outside. Police’s mother and father passed away 35 and 8 years ago respectively, leaving Police without any biological family members. However, Slone left her family when she was 17 and never returned. Like Police and Slone, many of today’s LGBT seniors do not have children, and have no biological family members left when they age either because their parents passed away or because they have been estranged from biological relatives early in their life. “Even if you have partner or something you’re still alone,” said Police. “Because it’s not that family togetherness. It’s not that mom or dad, uncle or aunt, anything like that, which I miss very much.”

“I’m very family oriented. I like to have family around but I have no more family. I have Pat and the dog. That’s my family now. You deal with it at our age,” Police added.

Police and Slone are the lucky ones because they have each other. Up to 75 percent of LGBT seniors live alone, compared to 33 percent of the general senior population. Ninety percent have no children, compared to 20 percent in general senior population. Similarly, 80 percent are single without a life partner or significant other, compared to 40 percent in the general senior population, according to the Brookdale Center for Healthy Aging and Longevity.

“LGBT people are twice likely to live alone, and four times likely to have no children,” said Rotholz. “So what happened in this society and many other societies, as well, is that as we age, a lot of us live to our family to take care of us. Within the LGBT communities, a lot of our family is family of choice; it’s not siblings, or wife or husband. So what we need to do is to start taking care of our own community, take care of ourselves.”

Sage members celebrate Thanksgiving at Sage center, 305 7th Ave

Sage members celebrate Thanksgiving at Sage center, 305 7th Ave

Sage first started with a friendly Visitor program in 1979, according to Rotholz. The idea of friendly visiting is to match volunteers with LGBT seniors, and to alleviate isolation by paying a visit to them once a week for an hour or two and making calls between visits. It’s still one of the center’s most successful programs. In addition, they now have programs related to arts and culture, fitness, food and nutrition, health and wellness, and lifelong education. Sage has been seen as a “home” to thousands of LGBT seniors in NYC. “We mostly stay at Sage during the day,” said Police. “The activities and different things are going on. We are either at home or at the center.” Ama Hruby, who moved to New York City from Massachusetts in January 2012 looking for a more progressive community, added: “I know the group has made a huge difference to our lives. I know it does to mine.”

While benefit from the services of the community, many work hard in helping others. Michael Feuerstein joined in Sage activities six years ago at a friend’s suggestion. “That’s one of the fortunate days I’ve ever had,” said Feuerstein, who now serves coffee and cake every day in Sage center. “Sage works very hard. People that are in distress come up here for comfort. We all try to help.”

Some have used their own loneliness to motivate them to help others. Eunice Samuel, an 85-year-old woman, has been living alone since all her family died. “I’m sad now because I’m alone,” said Samuel. “Because my whole family has died. I want to organize something that we are together. We work together. We take care of each other” The way Samuel keeps herself busy is helping other older lesbians who live alone. “I go and visit them. If people have to go to the doctor or to the hospital or something, I don’t like them to go alone,” said Samuel. Besides hospitals, nursing homes are another frequent of Samuel. “I want this to become a regular program that one or two people will come every week. When they are free they will take time, give you a short visit, so that you will know that you’re not rejected or left alone. And also, the nursing home or the hospital wouldn’t get the idea that you’re alone.”

For most LGBT older adults who were born and raised in the pre-Stonewall era when homosexuality was deemed a crime by the government, an illness by the medical community, and a perversion by the church, traumatic experiences in early stages of life have prepared them well for aging and placed them at an advantage in coping with the challenges and isolation that most heterosexuals may only start to deal with when they age.  “I was surprised at how fierce some of our older members really are in terms of their own abilities to advocate for themselves,” said Rotholz when asked about what was the most impressive thing about the Sage community. “What I have found here is tremendous respect for a lot of the old members who have been through so much trouble and so much discriminations in their lives that they have really developed incredible negotiating and advocacy skills for themselves.”

Eunice Samuel, 85 and her portrait done by artist Seth Ruggles Hiler

Eunice Samuel, 85 and her portrait done by artist Seth Ruggles Hiler

Lonestanding unequal treatment under laws, programs and services has nevertheless united LGBT seniors together in a unique way. LGBT seniors know better how to demand respect. “If people don’t know you and they don’t see you, they don’t know what’s happening in your life and sometimes your life becomes less important, said Samuel. “But when people see you, it means something to them.”

Resources for LGBT aging:

Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE)

Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE) is the country’s largest and oldest organization dedicated to improving the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) older adults.

U.S official government site for medicare


Copy of resident rights in nursing home


Eldercare Locator
(800) 677-1116

The Eldercare Locator helps older adults and their caregivers find local services that support older adults including contact information for local Area Agencies on Aging.

Family Caregiver Alliance
785 Market Street, Suite 750
San Francisco, CA 94103
(415) 434-3388
(800) 445-8106
Web Site:
LGBT Caring Community Online Support Group

Family Caregiver Alliance (FCA) seeks to improve the quality of life for caregivers through education, services, research and advocacy.

Through its National Center on Caregiving, FCA offers information on current social, public policy and caregiving issues and provides assistance in the development of public and private programs for caregivers.

For residents of the greater San Francisco Bay Area, FCA provides direct family support services for caregivers of those with Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, head injury, Parkinson’s and other debilitating disorders that strike adults.

FCA is committed to nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. We actively encourage members of the LGBT community to contact us for information and support services.

Gay and Lesbian Medical Association

This association of LGBT supportive physicians and other medical professionals lets you search for healthcare provider members in your area.

Lesbian and Gay Aging Issues Network (LGAIN), a constituent group of the American Society on Aging
833 Market Street, Suite 511
San Francisco, CA 94103
(415) 974-9600

The Lesbian and Gay Aging Issues Network is a national resource for information relating to LGBT seniors. Their Web Guide connects you to resources on the Internet.

National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR)
870 Market St. Suite 570
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 392-6257

The only national legal organization with a primary focus on lesbians and their families. NCLR also advocates on behalf of other groups in the LGBT community. Main program areas are family law, youth rights, elder law, immigration and asylum and transgender rights.

Old Lesbians Organizing for Change
P.O. Box 980422
Houston, TX 77098

Old Lesbians Organizing for Change is a national organization that seeks to empower lesbians 60 and over and fight ageism within both the LGBT and broader communities.

Pride Senior Network
356 West 18th Street
New York, NY 10011
(212) 271-7288

Maintains a service provider directory (primarily New York and vicinity), an LGBT newspaper, and provides a health resources newspaper. Has undertaken an LGBT Caregiver Research Initiative.

Senior Action in a Gay Environment (SAGE)
305 Seventh Avenue, 16th Fl.
New York, NY 10001
(212) 741-2247

The nation’s oldest and largest organization devoted to the concerns of LGBT elders. Provides programs and services in the New York area. Founder of nationwide network of local programs for LGBT seniors

Gayellow Pages

Go to Organizations/Resources: Age-Group and Senior Focus. Provides a national directory of programs and groups for LGBT older adults.

Senior Pages

Click on Gay Seniors for a listing of national
organizations that support LGBT older adults.

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