Gays and lesbians worry about discrimination in retirement

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It's late afternoon on one of those perfect Minnesota spring days. But instead of lounging outside, dozens of people in a Columbia Heights theater are watching "10 More Good Years," a documentary about aging in the gay community. In it, one gay senior worries about where he'll go when he can no longer live on his own.

"I'm having second thoughts," he says. "I shake my head more and more at going into a straight retirement home. I shake my head more and more. I feel that wouldn't be where I'd feel most comfortable."

Todd Masman, Anne Phipps and Anne Hodson
Todd Masman, Anne Phibbs and Anne Hodson came to the Heights Theater in Columbia Heights to see "Ten More Good Years," a movie about aging and discrimination in the gay community.
MPR Photo/Sanden Totten

The audience is willing to spend a lovely afternoon inside a dark room because for many, this story of aging and discrimination hits close to home.

"Yeah, it's a little bit of a fear," said Bruce Fisher.

Fisher is 59 years old and openly gay.

"I would like to believe it happened more in the past than it will happen in the future," Fisher said. "But I have some anxieties about the aging issue and this is one of them."

Fisher and other members of the Twin Cities gay and lesbian community mill about the lobby after the show. Many are in their 50s and 60s. They're part of the generation that came of age during the early '70s, when the gay rights movement first began. A generation that lived publicly out of the closet. But some, like Anne Phibbs, worry that going into long-term care may change that.

"I mean, I came out when I was 18 years old and now I'm 46," Phibbs said. "When you start to think about living the vast majority of your life out, and not closeted, the idea of becoming closeted in later years of your life becomes really depressing. It just seems really counter to what we're were fighting for really."

Kathy Wetzel-Mastel
Kathy Wetzel-Mastel stands in front of a display table for Spirit on Lake housing co-op. She's at the Heights Theater talking up the project, which will be the first gay-friendly home designed for seniors in the region.
MPR Photo/Sanden Totten

Phibbs isn't alone in her fears. A 2002 Twin Cites metro area study found that 90 percent of older gays and lesbians believed they wouldn't be treated sensitively by senior social services.

But in a corner of the lobby, a display on a table aims to change that. The table is covered in brochures and propped up behind it is a drawing of an idyllic looking condominium.

"The project is a limited equity co-op being geared toward the aging GLBT community," said Wetzel-Mastel, who works with the Powderhorn Residents Group, a non-profit launching the Spirit on Lake Housing Cooperative.

GLBT stands for Gay Lesbian Bisexual and Transgendered.

The Spirit on Lake Housing Cooperative is a 41-unit building designed for older GLBT people. When built, it'll be one of only a handful of such homes in the country.

Wetzel-Mastel said this community needs this project.

"The thing that has always resonated the most with me is the statistics about the percentage of folks in the GLBT community that are likely to age alone, without the traditional network of support," Wetzel-Mastel said. "To me, it seems like a perfect way to address that."

GLBT advocates point to a host of concerns that typical long-term care facilities don't address such as negative views from other residents, staff or who has the right to make health care decisions when they become ill? And without official marriages, many gays and lesbians have no legal say in how their partner is treated.

A survey of agencies representing hundreds of long-term care providers in Minnesota revealed that for most of them, this population isn't even on the radar yet.

"When we deal with senior care providers, many of them will say we don't have any GLBT people in our clientele and we say, yeah, you do, you just don't know it," said Barbara Satin, an transgendered activist. "And you just aren't providing them the opportunity to come out."

Satin is transgendered. She was born as a man but chooses to live her life as a woman. Satin works with a group called GLBT Generations, an organization that helps long-term care facilities think about how to care for people like Satin. Right now they are designing a GLBT sensitivity training program for area nursing homes.

"We want them to understand the lives of the people they are going to be caring about," she said. "Also the history that they've had to live through so that they understand the reticence and the expectation that they have of expecting to be treated badly. It's going to be an issue that care providers are going to have to struggle with."

Satin has a selfish reason for her work. She's 75 years old and said she's already booked a room for herself in the Spirit on Lake housing co-op.

"I have the number one reservation," she laughs.

But that project has stalled. The plan was to break ground this summer, but the economic slowdown has delayed that until 2010 or later. In the meantime, folks like Satin hope long-term care facilities can become more welcoming.

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