Senior housing facilities in Chicago: Creating communities for LGBT elders

By Colleen Zewe
Medill Reports

When searching for a senior housing facility, most people ask the standard questions: What are the meals like?  What are the costs?

But for LGBT people, the process becomes more complicated because they have to consider how LGBT-friendly the home is. Luckily, new diversity trainings for senior homes can help staff treat LGBT residents with respect and dignity.

Older LGBT people often face discrimination, especially in senior housing. LGBT senior Marsha Wetzel said she faced harassment and violence in her Niles nursing home and is now seeking legal redress. And in 2014, the National Resource Center on LGBT Aging Found that 46 percent of same-sex couples confronted adverse and differential treatment – ranging from gossip to violence- in their senior housing facilities.

But older LGBT people are more likely to be single and without children, forcing them to move into a home so they can receive care and not feel alone. With these shocking statistics and news stories about how LGBT people are treated in homes, it’s no surprise that 33 percent of LGBT seniors fear they would have to hide their sexuality in a nursing home.

Senior-specific LGBT programming, such as the lunches hosted at the Center on Addison, can help LGBT seniors feel connected to the community. (Photo c/o the Center on Halsted)

In response to this fear, many senior housing facilities have put time and energy into becoming more LGBT-friendly. SAGECare offers trainings on support older LGBT adults for businesses, nonprofits and housing facilities. In June, Evanston’s The Merion, at 1611 Chicago Ave., used SAGECare to become Illinois’s first certified LGBT-friendly senior housing facility.

It all began right after Marsha Wetzel’s case went to court in January 2016.  Merion social worker Anne Ryan and marketing coordinator RJ Alban  brought up the idea of doing this training to their boss. Ryan thought it would be a good idea after  Marsha Wetzel’s case, and Alban feels passionate about LGBT advocacy work.

“I brought it up in the context of a meaning, what some of the constituencies we can go after?” Alban said. “I myself am a gay man, and I am a proud social justice warrior. I wear that label unabashedly.”

As a gay man himself, Alban knows that being LGBT “is a difficulty enhancer.” Because of his job with the Merion, he became very involved with the older LGBT community in Chicago, and realized this group needed more advocates fighting for them.

“This isn’t in a group of people that have a lot of people fighting for them,” he said. “There are tons of people fighting for young, 20-year-old LGBT people. And those people need people fighting for them. I’m not saying it’s a zero-sum game. There’re very few people focused on the elderly, and SAGE is.”

The Merion brought in SAGECare professionals for a day, and staff learned about the unique needs of the LGBT elder community and how to best meet those needs.

Alban used the word “queer” as an example. Many young LGBT people have reclaimed queer as an identity, but for many older LGBT people, the word still has negative connotations associated with its history as a slur. It’s not appropriate in a senior housing community, he said.

In their training, the Merion staff learned how to ensure residents treat each other with respect. They hope this will make community spaces, such as the gym, a welcoming place for all. (The Merion)

Alban also said allies and senior care workers should consider the idea that, for LGBT people, family doesn’t always mean relatives. Because same-sex marriage was not legalized for so long, and because LGBT people sometimes don’t receive support from the immediate family, many consider their friends and social connections as their family, rather than their blood relatives.

The Merion also reconsidered the wording on their application forms. Many older LGBT people never married since country-wide same-sex marriage wasn’t legal until 2015, but still lived in a domestic partnership with the same person for many years. Asking if someone is single or married, or for the name of their spouse, may exclude the LGBT community.

The Merion expanded marketing materials to be more LGBT-friendly by showing more than just the straight couple in their brochures, and instead showing same-sex companions. Alban said the same-sex people on their marketing materials could be partners or they could be friends. It doesn’t matter because their facility welcomes everyone.

Alban said he thinks most residents there accept all lifestyles and tend to be more open because it is not a rural area. But thanks to their training, he thinks the staff feels better-prepared to deal with resident-to-resident harassment.

“What we would is simply remind that everyone has a right to live here with dignity, and if you cannot abide that, you yourself are not welcome,” he said.

In addition to the Merion, other housing options in Chicago include Town Hall Apartments in Lakeview. Designed to house only LGBT elders, the complex differs from the Merion in that it  offers low-income housing. It gives LGBT elders a home where they can feel accepted. It’s a partnership between anti-poverty group Heartland Alliance and the Center on Halsted, a LGBT community center.

Town Hall Apartments, for senior living, is located in Boystown, right in between the Center on Halsted and the Center on Addison, so residents have easy access to those resources as well. (Colleen Zewe/MEDILL)

Don Bell, a 79-year-old retired college administrator, lives in Town Hall Apartments and said he believes the community there helps him stay socially engaged. He said social disengagement is the biggest concern for all senior populations, because staying connected helps keep the brain sharp and keeps quality of life high. With socializing, people experience a “failure to fly,” he said.

For older LGBT people in particular, Bell believes the biggest threat is having to go back into the closet. He said they often face institutions, both residential and medical, where they do not feel safe identifying as LGBT. However, going back in the closet can make one feel like they can’t be themselves

“You may not receive the same services as other people if you identify yourself as LGBT plus,” he said. “You might suffer that sense of isolation because you are not part of the community that surrounds you.”

At Town Hall Apartments, he appreciates the ability to be out and proud, and that he can remain part of the LGBT community.

“This is a place where it’s okay for LGBT plus to be themselves,” he said.

The Center on Halsted’s senior services director Britta Larson plans events at their senior space on 806 W. Addison Street to connect and engage the elder community. They do social events, lunches, educational classes such as genealogy, and wellness programs such as blood pressure checks and yoga class. Larson said the wellness programs are especially important because of the health disparities LGBT elders face.

The Center on Addison is a space where seniors can express their identity without feeling discriminated against. Resident Don Bell said that most of the residents are LGBT, and there are some straight allies living there as well. (Colleen Zewe/MEDILL)

“They are more likely to drink, more likely to smoke, and more likely to have mental health challenges, and all of that can be tied to marginalized populations and unhealthy coping mechanisms,” Larson said.

She noted that because gay bars are one of the primary ways LGBT people meet each other, they can be at high-risk for developing alcohol problems.

Bell attends the senior events on Addison and appreciates the chance to not feel like he has to filter himself, and finds that events guard him from social isolation.

“I don’t have to hide my identity. I don’t have to code what I’m saying. People will understand what I’m saying, and they will understand the context,” he said.

Alban believes these unique needs meant SAGECare was the best option for the Merion, rather than LGBT training meant to apply to people of all ages.

The Center on Halsted markets itself as a “comprehensive community center dedicated to advancing community and securing the health and well-being of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) people of Chicagoland,” including elders.

“People might say, ‘why can’t you just use a generic LGBTQ training?” he said. “The needs and life experiences of LGBT elders are very different from the experience kids are going through now.”

Alban said Larson and the Center on Halsted have been a great resource for the Merion in striving to become more LGBT friendly, and that Larson “welcomed [the Merion] into the fight with open arms.”

Larson said that in the future, she hopes to reach more diverse populations and new areas of Chicago. She wants to reach more transgender people and more people of color.

Still, she believes that despite the social and health disparities they face, the senior LGBT Chicagoans face aging with strength and positivity.

“They are not shy about what we’re doing well and what we’re not doing well,” she said. “This population is very outspoken and very resilient.”

Photo at top: Many of Chicago’s LGBT senior resources are in Boystown, including the Center on Addison, a community center, and Town Hall Apartments, offering independent living for seniors. (Colleen Zewe/MEDILL)