SAGE Western Mass Launches LGBT Elder Services

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June 2, 2011
By: Tynan Power/TRT Reporter

When JM Sorrell attended a SAGE event and learned about their affiliates, she knew that she’d found the next step in a 7-year-old conversation she and others were having in Western Mass.

There were disparities in services for LGBT people, they were finding-especially in lesbian and transgender health care. In some cases, elders who had been out were retreating into the closet as they aged, because they faced so much heterosexism and outright homophobia in health care settings.

The group, all individuals who worked with or were concerned about LGBT elders, had begun talking about the need to organize for better advocacy. When they heard there was going to be a survey about how LGBT people fare in long term care, they started talking in earnest about the need to share ideas and resources.

After learning about SAGE affiliates, Sorrell felt sure that was the right path for the local group. Founded in 1978, SAGE USA is one of the oldest and largest organizations serving LGBT elders in the country, according to materials at the May 25th launch party at the Northampton Senior Center.

“The steering committee members were all for it,” she said, “and voted to become an affiliate.”

“We are non-profit under the sponsorship of Highland Valley-a 501(c)(3) organization,” said Sorrell, now Director of SAGE Western Massachusetts. “SAGE Western Massachusetts is an official SAGE affiliate, as we are under contract with SAGE USA.”

Already, the group has marched in Noho Pride in early May, something they hope to do each year. Pride offered an opportunity to get out information about the services they plan to offer.

They are careful not to announce grand plans for services they think the community needs, however.

“Since we all work with elders, we want to make sure we know what they need. Too many times, you give people things you think they need and they have to fit in [to those services],”  she added.

The need for advocacy for elders and LGBT education for elder care providers, though, is clear.

One older man, Paul Vasconcellos, shared his experience dealing with heterosexism in health care settings.

“Some is just assumptions and attitudes. They’ll say ‘We’ll take all the men to Hooters!’” he said, shaking his head and chuckling. “One time a group of students I used to work with, twelve young guys-all 18 or 19-came to visit me. Someone asked me if they were my children. Twelve of them? All the same age?”

“Sometimes,” Vasconcellos said, “people ask ‘Don’t you have family to take care of you?’ But my family doesn’t approve of who I am.”
None of the situations he described was life-threatening, but to think that’s the only risk would be to miss the point.

“When you’re vulnerable and you need care, you want people to understand you,” he said.

Anna Wilkinson, a SAGE steering committee member who also works as an elder care advisor, pointed out that it’s especially hard when things are taken away from you, as often happens to elders. Car keys get taken. Independence is taken when someone is placed in a care facility.

“When you’re in your own home, you have a choice of who’s around you. When you’re not, you don’t have that choice. You have to deal with whoever’s there, whether they’re racist or homophobic or…” Vasconcellos trailed off.

“It leaves people asking themselves ‘Do I need to not be who I am or do I not get services I need?’” Wilkinson explained.

One thing SAGE Western Mass already offers elders is a directory of organizations and service providers who have made a commitment to serving LGBT elders. The listings cover an extensive variety of services including the standard elder concerns of health care, financial and estate planning, and funeral services, as well as the LGBT-specific services.
“The listings were free of charge,” Sorrell said. “We intend to do a ‘live’ version on our website that is updated quarterly to add listings.”

“We worked as a team to solicit listings, and we had criteria for the people we called,” Sorrell explained. “We asked that they actively serve LGBT elders, do outreach, etc.  If agencies were not ready to be in the directory, we offered cultural competence trainings. This is community education at its best!”

In addition to the listings, some providers and organizations chose to have paid ads, as well. These help to offset SAGE’s costs. A Title III grant from Highland Valley Elder Services covered printing and web hosting costs.

Among their upcoming plans, SAGE Western Mass will show films in the fall and host a monthly gathering at the Senior Center, from 1-3 p.m. on the last Wednesday of every month.

Sorrell said the monthly gathering may evolve into something that’s purely social or a book group or something else-whatever the clients need.

“We want to create a normative experience for them, so that they don’t feel like they have to hide who they are.”
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