Retirement Options Limited For Gay And Lesbian Seniors

Jan 30, 2012

PORTLAND - As gay and lesbian people age, their need for retirement options mirrors those of the general population. But they often face unique challenges, especially when it comes to finding housing. For instance, some active-living retirement facilities don't allow unmarried couples to live together. And some gay seniors fear a cold shoulder from staff or fellow retirees. Correspondent Chris Lehman reports.

When Pat Matthews retired two years ago, she decided to move to a retirement home. In her late 60s, with declining health, she wanted a place where she could receive increasing levels of care as she grew older.

One other thing: She wanted to bring her partner of nearly 20 years, Carol Bosworth. Matthews says at the first place they visited, that was a problem.

"They didn't say we couldn't come," she says. "But they said that we would best off there if we were sisters. And we crossed them off our list, because that's not the way we want to live. We want to be honest about who we are."

Matthews and Bosworth found a more receptive audience here. This is the Rose Villa retirement community in Portland. And when the pair told their story to Rose Villa CEO Vassar Byrd, she said "I couldn't believe that in this day and age that that would happen. I was absolutely shocked beyond belief."

Byrd not only welcomed the couple but she set about making sure Rose Villa was as hospitable as possible to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or LGBT seniors.

But experts say Pat Matthews and Carol Bosworth's story isn't terribly unique. And Hilary Meyer of the National Resource Center on LGBT Aging says actual discrimination is compounded by deeply internalized fears of older gays and lesbians. She says they came of age during a time when homosexuality was more widely frowned upon.

"Older adults now have lived with this historic discrimination and stigma," Meyer says. "And they have a tremendous fear of service providers carrying that into their work."

Meyer says one of the biggest barriers that senior living facilities face is simply a lack of cultural competency among staff.

"Let me give you an example," she says.

Typical case — an elderly lesbian grows infirm. She has no immediate family and moves into a nursing home and, "The staff at the facility dresses her in dresses and other feminine clothing," Meyer says. "This can obviously be very disconcerting to a woman who has not worn a dress in 25 years."

In Portland there's an advocacy group that's helping to train retirement home staff. Mya Chamberlain directs the "Gay and Grey" program. She says it's not enough for a facility to call itself "gay friendly."

"Are they providing health insurance for same-gender couples for their employees? Is the price the same for a married couple as for a same-gender couple? Have they had training specifically around the challenges of that population?" Chamberlain asks.

Arguably one of the most gay-friendly senior living complexes in the nation is just outside of Portland in the suburb of Gresham. Rainbow Vista is a 55-plus apartment complex that proudly bills itself as 100 percent gay owned and operated.

Don McClure moved here from central California six months ago with his partner, Doug Schukar. McClure says the pair spent months investigating retirement options before settling here at Rainbow Vista.

"It was important for me that I could have a gay community; a place where I felt safe and I could be myself, especially as I start the aging process," he says.

His partner Doug Schukar says they wanted what a lot of older people want: to be surrounded by people just like them.

"This place is 100 percent gay at this point in time," Schukar says. "But if someone over the age of 55 wanted to move in here and they weren't judgmental and bigoted and everything else, they'd be just as welcome here as anyone else is."

Back at the other retirement community I visited, Rose Villa, Rod Dolan says he and his partner weren't looking for a gay retirement home. They just wanted a place where they would be accepted for who they are.

By his estimation, they're one of about three same-sex couples at the sprawling retirement facility that overlooks the Willamette River.

"People were actually glad to see us," Dolan says. "They weren't saying 'Oh boy, here's our gay couple.' They were saying 'Well, here's our new resident.'"

Pat Matthews says she considers herself fortunate to have ended up at Rosa Villa. She and Carol know things could have turned out for the worse.

"Some of our gay/lesbian friends that are older than us have chosen to stay home, because they don't trust what they might find," Matthews says.

That’s not unusual, according to experts on aging. People who provide services to gay and lesbian seniors say the fear of rejection keeps many from seeking the care they need. And while it's nearly impossible to quantify, advocates for gay seniors say an increasing number are going back in the closet in order to find a retirement facility that will accept them.

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network