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Here and Abroad, Interest Piqued in Homes for Gay Seniors

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Mar 17, 2008
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Institutions are the backbone of civilization, be they small and intimate, like family, or large and faceless, like the military.

We move from one institution to another throughout our lives: preschool, kindergarten, and all the rest of the educational demarcations, right up to college and grad school; then comes work, whether at a small business or a multinational corporation. Institutions tug at the fringes of our lives, as well as taking their places front and center: charities, hospitals, government, church or temple.

Institutions bolster, shelter, and nurture us; they can also wear off out wild edges, drown us in irritating rules, and subdue our jubilant, creative sides. But they are there, decade after decade, to be enjoyed or contended with, an inevitable part of life as we know it.

And finally, the time comes when many of us submit ourselves, or are submitted by relatives, to the care of the last and most dreaded institution: the nursing home, or the rest home, or the senior residence. Whatever the name, it’s a place where the grey, some active and some feeble, downsize from houses to suites or even single rooms, disconnecting from family and perhaps making a new community over nature walks, outings to town, or card games.

With the graying of the baby boomers, retirement facilities, assisted living, and other forms of senior housing are sure to undergo as major a transformation as everything else in the path of this huge demographic. The boomers redefined--perhaps invented--the teenager; they threw off the chains of sexual repression; they demanded, and enjoyed, drugs and rock music; then they grew out of those excesses and powered the conservatism and the dynamism of the 1980s.

And now, the leading edge of the boomers are eyeing retirement.

For gays and lesbians, as much as for the rest of the demographic identities within the boomer cohort, the changes ahead promise better things than what came before, or what we see now.

Already, GLBT seniors have begun to receive some measure of attention. Senior living facilities, like other institutions, still struggle with the presence of homophobia and discrimination.

In an article from last October, the New York Times recounted the story of a senior citizen named Gloria Donadello, a lesbian in her 80s, who related how she came out to her fellow residents at an assisted living facility in Santa Fe, NM.

At once, Donadello was frozen out of the limited social fabric of the facility. It was isolating; it drove her, the Times article said, into a depression.

That article went on to report that a new facility in Chelsea, MA, scheduled to be built as part of the existing Chelsea Jewish Nursing Home, would include a section for gay and lesbian seniors, where they need not fear social isolation or, more terrifying still, inadequate care from staff who might treat them badly because of their sexualities.

It’s an idea whose time has come, or is about to arrive, but not in the form of a landscape-altering wave. Rather, senior care for the GLBT community seems to be arriving piecemeal, in fits and starts.

An article from the Oregonian published on March 14 reported on an attempt by gay real estate businessman Henry Moshberger, 65, to establish what he termed "a retirement home for myself and all my friends."

At the moment, the facility, located in conservative Gresham, OR, might look as though its GLBT residents may well end up being Moshberger and his friends: only two residents live there currently, the Oregonian said, and they are both heterosexual.

Moshberger had initially intended to re-open the long-closed Camlu Retirement Apartments as a facility for "active seniors," but changed his plans and decided to try to make the facility a haven for GLBT retirees.

Moshberger changed the name of the residence too, to Rainbow Vista. The facility, for which Moshberger paid $1 million to acquire, has been open for less than a year, and the Oregonian reported that its fortunes may be about to change: a senior couple, Donald Bramley and Hoard Turner, were already preparing an apartment for a planned move-in date next summer; 86-year-old Bill Stein, a retired professor, was eyeing a move from his current residence, where anti-gay remarks might be dropped by other residents and where he felt compelled to retreat into the closet.

Said Stein of his current living arrangement, "If you don’t say, ’I’m gay,’ you pass. I’m pretty well closeted."

Added Stein in the Oregonian article, "Out here [at Rainbow Vista], I’m free."

Turner was also quoted in the article, saying, "If you’re not gay, you don’t understand the needs [gay seniors have] to talk to people, and just be totally relaxed and not have to watch what you’re saying."

Continued Turner, "It makes life much simpler."

Both the Times and the Oregonian reported that efforts in multiple locales around the country have been made to get GLBT senior living facilities up and running.

The facilities would serve a definite need, providing older GLBT people with sensitive and supportive staff, as well as an atmosphere where they need not be cast into continual fear, self-censorship, and isolation.

Moreover, such dedicated facilities would service an especially vulnerable share of the market: the Times story from last October included an anecdote about a gay man in a senior care facility in an East Coast city who 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.

The Oregonian story cited a poll from two years ago in which less than 50 percent of GLBT respondents indicated that they thought that the providers of health care in senior facilities would be respectful toward them.

The Oregonian quoted Vaune Albanese as saying, "That is a classic story because there is fear that you will be evicted, that you will be shunned at the very least."

Albanese, the Oregonian article reported, is the Friendly House’s executive director. Located in Portland, the Friendly House provides a program, the Elder Resource Alliance, for the Portland area’s estimated 10,000 "LGBTQQI" seniors of sixty and over.

According to the Elder Resource Alliance Web site, " There are an estimated 10,000 GLBTQI elders in and around the Portland metropolitan area."

Citing a 1999 study, the Web site continues, "GLBTQI seniors are more likely to live alone than heterosexual seniors and often lack adequate family support networks."

The Web site says, "GLBTQI seniors are 5 times less likely to access senior services than their heterosexual peers."

Such statistics suggest an urgent need for facilities like Moshberger’s Rainbow Vista, whose motto is, "A Place of Our Own."

Indeed, the Oregonian article pointed out the Moshberger himself had experienced a taste of discrimination while living at a senior trailer park. When the neighbors saw Moshberger give a friend a kiss goodbye, they shut him out; the trailer park’s management, by contrast, turned up their scrutiny of Moshberger’s lot.

But the going has been slow in terms of establishing such "places of our own" for GLBT seniors. Only three such facilities have opened so far, all in the last couple of years. (The complex in Chelsea, with its dedicated wing for GLBT elders, was scheduled to begin construction only a few months ago.) In addition to Moshberger’s venture, a facility has opened in Hollywood, CA, and done well; another has started up in Santa Fe, NM, the town where Ms. Donadello’s former residence was, and remains under-populated.

In terms of Rainbow Vista, the problem may not be a lack of interest so much as the location of the facility itself; Daniel Torrence, the co-chairman of Senior Housing and Retirement Enterprises (SHARE), which has been committed to senior GLBT housing for seven years, said that although his group had considered a partnership with Moshberger on Rainbow Vista, the facility’s placement was problematic.

Gresham is seen as conservative territory. The Oregonian quoted Torrence as saying, "We’re really wanting people to be in a community where they can be themselves."

Added Torrence, "We’re not so sure that’s possible in Gresham at this point in time."

Plus, Rainbow Vista is in the suburbs, and, said Torrence, "[O]ur folks are isolated enough... Do we want to isolate them even further by locating them in the suburbs?"

SHARE, the Oregonian said, is looking into creating its own facility for GLBT seniors.

Moshberger disagreed, saying, "Certainly people on the other side of the river have that feeling that this is the hinterlands."

Added Moshberger, "Just the name Gresham turns off people that aren’t familiar with it."

But the upside, Moshberger pointed out, is the low-cost area; besides, the city isn’t that far away.

Alley Hector, a blogger at OregonLive.com, added his own take on the issue.

In a posting on Rainbow Vista, the blogger gave the opinion that despite the low cost of the suburban environment, the cost at Rainbow Vista was comparable to a facility in the city.

"Though queer seniors are often stereotyped as rich, the reality is that, on the whole, we have a lower median income. So price is important," Hector wrote.

Then there was the issue of décor.

"Some designer has got to want the good karma that would come from redoing the lounge pro-bono," said the blogger of the facility’s dated furnishings, adding, "Vista may be cozy but it is certainly not a haven of design."

Noted Hector, "The website also has a distinct 90s feel."

This particular gay issue, as with so many others, is being treated a bit differently in Europe than it is here in the United States.

A Mar. 17 story published by the British newspaper The Guardian reported on the Asta Nielsen Haus in Berlin, a pioneering GLBT eldercare facility.

The Guardian article quoted Kerstin Wecker, head of the facility, was saying, "We just want people to be able to speak freely of their pasts. They shouldn’t have to worry about reactions or prejudices."

Continued Wecker, "It’s simple really: no one should be shocked to go into a man’s room and see a picture of another man."

Added Wecker, "No one should have to explain themselves to others at this stage of life."

The gay and lesbian-exclusive residence took care to hire gay and lesbian employees because, just as in America, German gays and lesbians who were surveyed as prospective clients at the center indicated a need for the respect and sympathy of people like themselves.

The most truly radical idea of the Asta Nielsen Haus? "We don’t want to be exotic," said Wecker, "just a slice of everyday life."

Reflecting the same concerns as their American counterparts, GLBT Germans, too, are worried about the quality of care they will receive in their golden years, and whether those golden years will be tarnished by prejudice.

The Guardian reported that the idea for a European GLBT senior residence was introduced at a "gay and gray" meeting in 1995, in the German city of Cologne.

"At the moment, most gay and lesbian residents keep themselves hidden," said Christian Hamm, a member of the board of the group behind the center.

Continued Hamm, "Imagine one gay person in a home of 100 people. It can be lonely and isolating."

The Guardian reported that the group behind the Asta Nielsen Haus (named for a Danish film star) are already at work on creating a second Berlin home for GLBT seniors, this time an assisted-care facility.

not that they want to do all the work themselves: "We don’t want to be the only one," the Guardian quoted Wecker as saying.

Added Wecker, "We hope this idea takes off."

An institution can offer safety and even tranquility to those it harbors, but only if those behind the institution and within it share a common set of goals and values. As if to underscore this point, and reassure prospective residents, the Web site for the Asta Nielsen Haus greets the reader with a quote from Wihelm von Humboldt:

"Essentially, it’s the relationships with other people that bring sense to life."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network’s Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association’s Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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