West Suburban Senior Services has quietly created a zone of safety and respect for LGBT seniors at its Forest Park center, located in the old pancake house at 8300 Roosevelt Rd. The program started out as a weekly lunch supported by the Suburban Area Agency on Aging and Proviso Township in 2012.
Program Director Eric Vironet had to convince funders that there were enough aging LGBT people in the western suburbs to make a program viable.
“There was skepticism that there were any LGBT seniors in the area at all,” Vironet told the Review last summer.
Now the program has grown from 60 to 100 participants in two years, Vironet said. The weekly lunches still take place, along with Monday craft parties, movie and game nights and ballroom dancing lessons twice monthly. The center also offers free case management and mental health counselling.
On Oct. 8, the program will celebrate its third year and an important milestone: WSSS has become an affiliate of the national SAGE program, (Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Elders).
SAGE was founded in 1978 in New York City. The Center on Halsted is another SAGE affiliate, but there are only two others in the Midwest, said Vironet, in Milwaukee and St. Louis.
Becoming affiliated with SAGE means WSSS has access to SAGE’s resources, including training and ideas for new programming.
“They do guidebooks about providing inclusive services for LGBT adults,” Vironet said. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel when we want to hand out brochures.”
SAGE also does research into issues that affect gay people as they grow older.
A Out and Visible study released this week by SAGE shows one in two LGBT adults is “very or extremely concerned” about not having enough money to live on. Forty-three percent of LGBT seniors do not tell their doctor about their sexual orientation, the study says. One in three LGBT seniors live alone, the study says.
SAGE helps WSSS focus on the unique vulnerabilities of gay seniors and spurs ideas about what presentations might be helpful for its clientele.
The drop-in group Fridays often hear a presentation about topics such as legal resources, Alzheimer’s disease, living wills, medical directives and power of attorney.
“We did a needs-assessment and of the people who answered our questionnaires, 80 percent of them are single,” Vironet said. “That’s a large number, and that means they don’t have as big of a support network.”
Also, as a national group, SAGE can direct the WSSS to federal and national grants to help pay for the senior services. Already, the group is supported by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, FEMA, the Illinois Department on Aging, Westlake Health Foundation, Community Development Block Grants from the City of Berwyn, United Way of Metropolitan Chicago and the Community Memorial Foundation.
The Friday lunch group meets in a comfortable zone with others, ages 55 – 80 who were the first generation out of the closet and grew up when being gay was still illegal in some states. There is a bond among their generation, which had to endure family conflicts in some cases, and then had to watch as friends succumbed to the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.
Affordable housing and assisted living are other worries for LGBT people who are aging. Many say they fear having to go “back in the closet” if they enter a senior care center.
Vironet said WSSS and SAGE create presentations for nursing homes and long term care facilities, to demonstrate ways to be respectful and non-discriminatory.
“We speak to staff and residents about these issues. It’s important to be ready for LGBT elders coming their way.”
Vironet said he’s been pleased the group has grown by word of mouth. Recently Vironet attended a senior event at Hines VA hospital under the banner “Do Ask, Do Tell” that encouraged LGBT veterans in the western suburbs to join the group.
“Our goal would be five days a week of programming, in consultation with SAGE,” Vironet said. “We want to expand the programming to include health fairs, and bring in medical and human service providers in the coming year to connect with what our participants need.
“Our goal is for WSSS to be a welcoming and affirming space for all seniors regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity,” Vironet said.