More healthcare providers are recognizing the unique challenges faced by LGBTQ elders. Photo: Robert Reed

This article is part of News is Out’s Caring for Community series, which is focused on the challenges and triumphs of giving and receiving care in the LGBTQ+ community. These stories have been created through a strategic partnership between AARP and News is Out.

With the Baby Boomer population aging into retirement, more LGBTQ+ seniors are looking for affirming care and resources in their golden years, nervous about having to return to the closet in the absence of such care.

Karen McPhail, CEO of Eldementals, LLC, said that while more and more senior care operators are supportive and knowledgeable of the needs of LGBTQ+ seniors, not all such facilities have that knowledge and provide that support. She said she was prompted to form the group Aging Rainbows, a Virginia-based group that advocates for LGBTQ+ seniors, after witnessing first-hand inappropriate treatment toward one of her clients who is transgender.

 “One of my transgender clients fell,” McPhail said. “She had a neck fracture. She had been doing well, independent, no problems before the fall,” McPhail told the Blade. “She is 63 years old and all of a sudden, she’s going to skilled nursing rehab. And they wanted to put her in a gender inappropriate room,” McPhail continued.

“And it took me hours of shielding her from what I thought was inappropriate, and educating and advocating to find the appropriate room,” she said. “I had to work over weeks to educate people who had no idea of her needs. And at that point, I sat down at my desk and said, enough. So, I created at that time all the information for starting Aging Rainbows.”

Among other things, McPhail said, Aging Rainbows advises senior care facilities she works with to enroll employees and officials in an LGBTQ+ competency training program operated nationally by SAGE, the New York City-based national LGBTQ+ seniors advocacy group. The facilities and organizations participating in the program, called SAGECare, are designated “SAGECare credentialed” and are included in SAGE database lists available to LGBTQ+ elders looking for a safe and supportive facility in which to reside.

“It is the case now that in almost all states there are one or more elder care facilities that have been trained throughout our SAGECare program,” SAGE CEO Michael Adams told the Blade in a recent interview. “But it’s nowhere near where it needs to be,” he said. “It needs to be that there are welcoming elder care facilities in every single community in this country” for LGBTQ+ elders.

Eldementals is SAGECare Platinum credentialed, according to SAGE spokesperson Christina Da Costa.

Da Costa told the Blade that there are currently 174,699 professionals trained and 748 SAGECare credentialed organizations or facilities nationwide, including 17 SAGECare credentialed organizations or facilities in the D.C. metro area. Among them is the Ingleside at Rock Creek residential seniors facility in D.C.

As of one year ago, SAGE said there were 15 elder care residential facilities in the U.S. created specifically to serve LGBTQ+ seniors. They are located in several of the nation’s large cities, including New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. But none are located in D.C., Virginia or Maryland.

Aging Rainbows, meanwhile, is among several D.C.-area organizations that provide support and services for LGBTQ+ seniors. The D.C. Center for the LGBT Community and Whitman-Walker Health, D.C.’s LGBTQ+ supportive healthcare center, have provided programs and services for LGBTQ+ seniors for more than a decade.

Among the regular events offered by Center Aging, the D.C. Center’s seniors program are its weekly Monday morning Coffee and Conversation gathering and its weekly Friday afternoon Tea Time gathering. Both are currently held via Zoom.

As part of its ongoing special events, the Center Aging program held an event on Saturday, July 21 called Intergenerational Hangout in which LGBTQ+ older adults and LGBTQ+ younger adults came together for a discussion about “everything and anything in the hopes of building bridges between generations and providing some laughs along the way,” according to a D.C. Center announcement of the event.

Abby Fenton, a spokesperson for Whitman-Walker Health, said the LGBTQ+ supportive health center has long provided supportive and affirming medical care for LGBTQ+ seniors who make up a large number of its patients.

Fenton said “quite a few” of Whitman-Walker’s LGBTQ+ senior patients are longtime HIV survivors who feel comfortable coming to a healthcare provider with expertise and understanding of how best to keep people with HIV healthy.

Whitman-Walker Health also co-coordinates at least four peer-led support groups for LGBTQ seniors called Silver Circles, that meet once a week, according to Michael Mitchell, the Whitman-Walker coordinator of the Silver Circles program. Mitchell said the program is operated jointly by Whitman-Walker and Iona Senior Services, a D.C.-based nonprofit organization that provides services for seniors, including LGBTQ+ seniors.

“Iona is proud to offer programs specifically created for LGBTQ+ older adults, in addition to our other programs that are open to everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or gender expression,” Iona says on its website.

Mitchell said the Silver Circles groups discuss a wide range of issues of interest to LGBTQ+ seniors, including the subject of sex.

He said the program is supported financially by the D.C. Department of Aging and Community Living, which lists on its website community-based organizations, including Whitman-Walker, Iona, and the D.C. Center that provide services for LGBTQ+ seniors.

Also providing support and services for LGBTQ+ seniors is Capitol Hill Village, a nonprofit organization serving older adults in Capitol Hill and surrounding neighborhoods, a statement on organization’s website says. The statement says the group’s focus is on helping seniors “age in place” in their own homes by providing services from its volunteers such as home maintenance and transportation.

Like the D.C. Center’s LGBTQ+ seniors gathering events on Mondays and Fridays, Mitchell said all the Silver Circle gatherings continue to meet virtually via Zoom.

Longtime D.C. LGBTQ+ seniors advocate Ron Swanda said he is disappointed that the D.C. Center’s seniors gatherings as well as other local seniors events have continued to meet virtually.

“I’d rather do these things face to face because I learn better and I like to get the feel for the people involved,” he said. “When I do it online I don’t,” said Swanda, who told the Blade he has withdrawn from participating in most Zoom events.

“I’d rather do these things face to face because I learn better and I like to get the feel for the people involved.”

Ron Swanda

Mitchell of Whitman-Walker said that although participants in the LGBTQ+ seniors programs yearn for the pre-COVID, in-person gatherings, most have adjusted to the Zoom meetings, and some prefer them.   

“Initially, we were concerned that our senior Circle folks wouldn’t necessarily get the technology,” Mitchell said in referring to the use of online programs like Zoom. “But they’ve glommed onto the technology pretty quickly,” he said.

“And what we have found is that they do miss meeting in person, as isolation is one of the things we’re trying to tackle, but not having to come downtown, find parking, be out after dark, be on icy sidewalks in the winter, that kind of thing has actually been very helpful for a lot of these folks,” according to Mitchell.

One in-person event held Nov. 17 in Sterling, Va., described as “Giving Thanks to LGBTQ+ Elders: SAGE Table” drew attention to the growing number of organizations and senior care facilities in Northern Virginia and in the D.C. metro area in general that are supportive of LGBTQ+ seniors.

SAGE launched SAGE Tables in 2017 as a gathering to share a meal among people of all ages to support their LGBTQ friends and family members who are seniors, in part, to alleviate social isolation.

SAGE has said hundreds of such gatherings have taken place across the country since SAGE Table events began.

Aging Rainbows was one of the five co-hosts of the SAGE Table event in Sterling. The other co-hosts included Insight Memory Care, a seniors care facility in Sterling where the SAGE Table event was to be held; Care Connect Nova of Purcellville, Va., a lesbian-owned company that provides in-home concierge senior care services in all parts of Northern Virginia; and Retirement Unlimited, Inc. (RUI), a Richmond, Va.-based company that provides both independent and assisted living residential facilities for seniors in Northern Virginia.

“Come enjoy an evening of dining and conversation,” a statement released by organizers of the Sterling SAGE Table event says. “SAGE Table events bring together people of all ages to share a meal and conversation,” it says. “The transformative relationships formed around a SAGE Table can alleviate social isolation and its consequences.”

Lou Chibbaro Jr. is the Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade.