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Panelists say many more LGBTs to face issues related to aging
by Matt Simonette

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A number of community advocates gathered Aug. 24 for a morning-long discussion centering primarily on extending the availability of culturally competent services and resources for LGBT seniors.

The forum stemmed from an extensive community survey undertaken by the Pride Action Tank advocacy and its community partners focusing on issues faced by aging LGBT community members. Concerns around service providers' cultural competence, along with housing availability, were the two issues most commonly raised as concerns, organizers said.

"We can't just build our way out of this," said Pride Action Tank Executive Director Kim Hunt, discussing the widening scope of the problem as the LGBT community ages. She added that "having input from folks with lived experience is central to the work that we do."

Panelists at the Aug. 24 forum, which was held at Center on Halsted, included Center of Halsted Senior Services Director Britta Larson; Howard Brown Health Intensive Community Care Services Program Manager Kelly Rice; AARP Associate State Director of Advocacy and Outreach Terri Worman; and activist Don Bell.

At the outset of discussion, Bell reiterated the importance of recognizing the multiplicity of voices and experiences within the LGBT community: "I wanted to remind people of the diversity of this community that is frequently lost here on the North Side, especially here in 'Homo Central.'"

Larson additionally emphasized that 80 percent of aging LGBT adults have to go back into the closet if they go into an assisted living facilities. Some 85 percent of such communities have ties to a religious organization, according to Serena Worthington of SAGE, who also spoke.

Even if that organization is supportive of, or even ambivalent about, the LGBT community, there are few guarantees as to how residents will be treated by staff, fellow residents or onsite religious personnel.

Larson noted that personnel at faith-based agencies are frequently committed to helping aging LGBT clients but are sometimes hindered by organizational policy; she recalled speaking with a social worker trying to locate resources for a client who could not do so since the agency blocked search-results containing LGBT-related keywords. An audience member who lived at Town Hall Apartments, next to the Center, said that even there, in a facility geared towards LGBT residents, resources could not be brought up on communal computers since words such as "sexuality" and "gender" are blocked by one of the facility's operators, Heartland Alliance, for fear that residents will be inadvertently exposed to pornography.

Larson promised to take up the issue with Heartland.

Bell said persons needing particular resources must not be afraid to ask providers about them ahead of time. Worman said that a key concern is educating consumers about knowing what they should be asking for.

One audience member inquired whether stakeholders could formulate a set of benchmarks, similar to criteria around LEDE-building certification, that providers could be held to. Panelists said that such ideas have been carried out on a smaller scale by organizations like SAGE, but large-scale certification would likely get little buy-in from providers at first, since their compliance would be hindered by rapid staff turnover, which is characteristic of the industry.

Worthington put the various logistical problems into a wider political context, warning that so-called religious freedom laws could have a devastating impact on aging LGBT Americans if they end up at the mercy of nursing home personnel who might use such laws to discriminate against patients and clients.

She also discussed a serious of recommendations SAGE made to state governments on behalf of aging LGBT Americans. Those included designating LGBT adults as a target population under the Older Americans Act; passing a "Bill of Rights" for LGBT residents in long-term care facilities; establishing a commission on LGBT aging issues; mandating cultural competency training as a condition for state certification; and asking stakeholders to create comprehensive plans for LGBT seniors.

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