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Outing the Issue

August 1, 2001
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Gay and lesbian residents are seeing the long-term care market responding to their senior housing needs by Douglas J. Edwards, Assistant Editor
Outing the Issue
Gay and lesbian residents are seeing the development of long-term care communities marketed for them-and opportunities for existing ones to make them feel more welcome By Douglas J. Edwards, Assistant Editor Long-term care has come a long way from the drab, institutional settings of the 1960s, when residents literally waited to die in facilities not designed to provide an inspirational environment. Today's new and improved facilities rush to meet residents' needs, celebrating their individuality through specially designed activities. Homes are beautifully decorated and staff are trained to make the facility feel welcoming to new residents. Well, at least for most residents.
Admissions questions asking a male resident about his wife and children; pictures on the wall showing only male-female couples; a woman's lesbian partner questioned about her relationship to the resident when she visits; staff not trained to handle gender-variant residents; and the possibility of abuse and discrimination-all these factors can lead a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) resident of a long-term care facility to feel depressed, isolated, unappreciated and unacknowledged. So says Sandy Warshaw, director of policy and education of Senior Action in a Gay Environment (SAGE), the nation's oldest and largest advocacy organization for LGBT seniors.

"Even when a place is not openly homophobic, everything you see as you go into most nursing homes comes from a heterosexist bias." Adds David S. Buckel, senior staff attorney for the Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund, which provides legal assistance to members of the gay community, "The last of all boxes in the closet that gay people have been forced into is the one containing senior issues." Many facilities are probably not deliberately ignoring the needs of current or potential gay and lesbian residents. As Rev. Ken South, an aging-initiative fellow with the Policy Institute of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, explains, many seniors in their seventies and eighties in long-term care facilities today are not interested in being "out": "A lot of facilities will rightly say, 'Well, I've never had a gay senior call us, send us a letter or ask us for a service. I don't think we have any.' They do have gay and lesbian clients, who are very proud of the fact that they can 'pass,' because that is how they learned to survive."

Once Again, the Boomers Change Everything

As the baby boomers age, gays and lesbians who have been out most of their adult lives will increasingly refuse to hide their identities, such as in circumstances where a facility's policy bars them from living with their lifetime partners, suggests Lambda Legal's Buckel, who is looking at legal challenges to such policies. "LGBT seniors, like all seniors, often need to turn to mementos, friends and family to enrich their final years, but that can't happen in facilities where it is scary to have photos of lifetime partners on the bureau, and where lifetime partners are barred from living with each other or having the visitation privileges of spouses."

These concerns have led to calls for the development of long-term care facilities and retirement communities specifically designed and marketed for gay and lesbian residents. Plans for such facilities have been proposed for many areas of the country, although perhaps the only project already constructed is the Palms of Manasota . "It's a community that is caring, safe and supportive of gays and lesbians," explains Val Filipski, director of sales and marketing and a resident of the Palms. "People are free to be who they are here. They are free to walk hand in hand down the street and cuddle under the stars without the stares, snide remarks and comments to which we are frequently subjected."

Recently completed phase one has 21 single-family, independent living homes priced from $130,000 to 200,000. To allow residents to age in place, the homes have wider doorways, sliding pocket doors, no stairs and can be adapted for handicapped accessibility. The next phase will add independent living villas or town homes costing about $144,900 to 149,900. Filipski says an assisted living facility is planned and a market study is under way. While the Palms is open to any resident who wishes to live there, it is marketed specifically for gays and lesbians because "straight people have unlimited options," Filipski notes. She adds that the larger heterosexual community has accepted the Palms because it has raised surrounding property values and "we're active in the community. We don't just stay in our little enclave."

Developing Idea

Besides scattered trailer park and prefabricated home retirement communities, there don't appear to be many gay and lesbian retirement communities-or facilities for that matter-other than the Palms. However, many projects are planned. One that is close to ground-breaking (scheduled for November) is Arbours Cathedral City, developed by the Arbours Development Group, Inc. (Figure 2). John DeLeo, president, CEO and chairman of Arbours, notes, however, "Although we are catering to the gay and lesbian population in relation to their lifestyle and personal care needs, this facility will be an open facility and inclusive of all folks who would like to live there."