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Florida’s LGBT seniors seek resources, face concerns

by Joseph Erbentraut
Contributor
Wednesday Sep 9, 2009
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Aging is a sensitive subject for any person. It often presents a difficult set of health challenges and life changes as one matures. For gay men and lesbians, however, a number of often unique issues exacerbate these concerns, but they remain taboo because of a failure to admit immunity to the aging process.

In South Florida, which is home to one of the largest populations of LGBT seniors in the country, SAGE (Senior Action in a Gay Environment) is one of several groups working on their behalf. And SAGE members are set to celebrate their 15th anniversary on Sunday with its annual cabaret dinner and dance at the Marriott in Fort Lauderdale.

SAGE of South Florida, which is part of a national network of similar organizations, offers a range of social and educational opportunities that including an annual cruise, discussion groups, dinner and theater meet-ups and a monthly series that features guest speakers and discussions about issues that affect LGBT elders. The organization’s membership is booming with more than 400 people.

South Florida SAGE president Carl Galli said he feels the organization makes a conscious effort to appeal to the varying interests of LGBT seniors, and to meet what he described as their palpable need for social interaction.

"When you start to be our age, it’s hard for some of us to find ways to socialize with people of our same attractions," Galli said. "We care about one another. If one of us is ill, we send out a get-well card or visit them. There’s an element of kinship and friendship to it which I believe is a very important part of what we do."

The Gay and Lesbian Community Center of South Florida also hosts a number of programs catered to aging LGBT persons. These include SAGE’s own weekly drop-in meetings and several other events including a support group, exercise program and an interactive "Name That Tune" event.

Ken Merrifield, chair of the GLCC Senior Advisory Council, agreed the Center’s senior programming plays a crucial role in the lives of those who turn out.

"We had someone who was near suicide, the most depressed person I’d ever seen ... We took him under our wing and has had a major turnaround."

"Many of them are retired, live alone and aren’t working so they need and want social contact," Merrifield, who spearheaded the effort to integrate senior events into the GLCC’s calendar, said. "They’d prefer it, of course, with other gay people and that’s a big reason why they come to the events."

Social events aside, serious health threats to the ever-growing numbers of LGBT seniors, who often have a harder time securing insurance benefits than their straight counterparts, persist. People over the age of 50 today make up the fastest-growing segment of those living with HIV. Between the years of 1990 and 2005, Local Department of Health studies report the number of AIDS cases among those over 50 have increased 700 percent, and a large percentage of those infected are gay.

"You don’t typically see prevention messages that relate to [seniors] and tell them to get tested," Michael Ruppel of the Tampa-based AIDS Institute said. "They’re getting diagnosed while under care for other issues that come with the aging process."

Depression also presents a major problem. It can be linked to increased substance abuse, suicide and other risk factors.

"As lesbians and gay people grow older, they may not have families and we increasingly see senior citizens dealing with isolation," Equality Florida spokesperson Brian Winfield shared. "This can be dangerous in terms of their physical well-being by not having someone to check in on them and also mentally. It’s so important to keep a social network and have friends in order to avoid depression issues."

Indeed, it seems it is truly the simple things-coffee, conversation or just a bite to eat-can make all the difference for aging LGBT seniors. When asked what he considered to be SAGE’s greatest success Galli recounted his experience with a man who recently came to a drop-in meeting.

"We had someone who was near suicide, the most depressed person I’d ever seen... We took him under our wing and has had a major turnaround," he said. "To see that someone can turn their life around into a more positive outlook on life is more important to me than the number of people coming to any one group."

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to www.joe-erbentraut.com to read more of his work.

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