Gay and Aging in La-La Land
The LGBT community is youth obsessed, and Hollywood is all about the perfect image. So how does it fare for those LGBT seniors who are gay and gray and living in LA? Growing older as an LGBT person in a city such as Los Angeles can hold problems, but it also has its own benefits. There are approximately 75,000 LGBT seniors In the Los Angeles area, and the obstacles faced by all seniors regardless of their sexuality can be exaggerated for those that are LGBT.
"The vastness and spread-out nature of Los Angeles can increase the level of isolation for LGBT seniors," said Richard Gollance, a psychotherapist and co-chair at The LGBT Aging Issues Network. "A large number of older gay men live alone. Many LGBT people do not have family support, with no children and broken connections with relations. Older lesbians may be more likely to suffer with poverty because of the wage gap."
Gollance said that while there are good senior programs in the city, access can be an issue, with a poor public transportation system and long distances between neighborhoods. Donna Cassyd, a 72-year-old Echo Park resident who grew up in LA, remembers when streetcars used to provide connections from the beach to the Valley.
Cassyd’s neighborhood provides stores, restaurants and businesses within walking distance. But she likes to cycle for fitness and to get around the city. She sometimes connects with the Old Lesbians Organizing for Change group that holds meetings in Long Beach and annual conferences. Cassyd worked as a teacher and served on the district’s Sex Equity Commission.
"I do feel out of place in my own neighborhood," Cassyd told EDGE. "People need to acknowledge older LGBT people. Right now it’s like we’re invisible or we’re admired. I don’t want to be either of those things."
That said, she takes part in the free classes for seniors at the Echo Park Film Center where most recently she made a short using archival footage and a filmed interview with her mother. In 2006 she directed a short about lesbians in a roller derby titled "High Heels on Wheels."
Ed Hansen is president of the Gay Elder Circle, which meets in Plummer Park in West Hollywood. Based on the philosophies of African communities that see recognition of the wisdom and experience of elders as vital to the health of a community, the group includes 15 members from Los Angeles and the Valley.
At 72 years old, Hansen is now retired but spent ten years as pastor at the Hollywood Methodist Church. He said that in retirement he is more involved in LGBT issues than ever and takes part in the Seniors Program at the Gay and Lesbian Centre, the California Men’s Gathering, the Gay Men’s Medical Circle and the Project Service LA’s Ask the Elders events.
"Within the circle we are engaged and not alone, which changes our experience of growing older significantly," said Hansen. "We try to build an inter-generational dialogue and generally this is received very positively. We do have to overcome some prejudices held by younger gay men that older men are only looking for dates or that older men are resentful of their youth. We advance the idea that we can take a responsible and caring role and provide support to younger generations."
Although living in a cosmopolitan and diverse city with a large LGBT contingent is a better situation than living in a small rural town with little support, Richard Gollance feels it is easy to forget the psychological impact of growing up in a much more restrictive and hostile time.
"There’s a lot of internalized homophobia from the feelings of shame and rejection LGBT elders have gone through. That can cause them to distrust programs that are there for their benefit," said Gollance. He said that it’s also easy to feel the young deserve to have a better experience than the older have had and as such concentrate efforts on improving their situation. "I think there’s much misconception between the young and senior LGBT communities but when they do work together it can be very satisfying to all."
LGBT Seniors Find Community At Triangle Square in Hollywood
Eric Harrison is executive director of Gay and Lesbian Elder Housing in Los Angeles, which supports a unique project: Triangle Square in Hollywood. Triangle Square was built in 2007 to provide low cost housing and services for LGBT elders. It is an independent living facility with the majority of seniors spending their Social Security payments on the rent and taking advantage of the array of services for the rest of their needs, including free hot lunches every day, the Food Forward program providing farmer’s market produce (the Hollywood farmer’s market takes place on the same street as the building every Sunday), art classes, concerts and a communal recreation area. Finding housing as a LGBT senior can be hard not only because of financial obstacles but also due to the potential for discrimination in residential homes, assisted living facilities and affordable shared housing situations.
"LGBT seniors more often have little safety net with no children, and no benefits from partners that may have passed away. Their generation came of age when being gay was illegal," explained Harrison. "Los Angeles is an accepting, democratic and progressive city but [LGBT seniors] have perhaps lived in fear and often secrecy for much of their lives and so can be distrustful of others. Triangle Square can really strengthen LGBT seniors. One of my favorite classes we offer is ’Talk Story’ in which our residents write and present their personal histories to the community of the building."
Seventy-seven year old Ed DeHay has been a resident of Triangle Square since it opened. He has lived in Los Angeles since 1968.
"When I heard they were opening this place I got myself on the waiting list right away," said DeHay. "It is wonderful to have a one-bedroom apartment all to myself. I love the hot lunches, concerts and my acupuncture sessions. I’ve met many more people from the LGBT community since moving here."
The Seniors Program at the LA Gay and Lesbian Center organizes classes, dinners, health and wellness programs and support groups. In March alone there are low cost or free classes available in Tai Chi, Beginners Spanish, Wii Bowling plus a St. Patrick’s Day Pot Luck and Griffith Park Hike.
"There are so many resources in this area," said Hansen, "but we have to make sure LGBT seniors are mentally healthy and able to stretch themselves in the way that is necessary to take advantage of all the bonuses of living here."
Studies have found LGBT seniors in LA live alone at a rate of 65 percent. Living alone, for all seniors, correlates with negative mental and physical health outcomes. Additionally, loneliness and a sense of disconnection were recently found to hasten death in the elderly.
"We provide services to 3,300 seniors with 70 to 90 activities each month," said Senior Services Director Kathleen Sullivan. "We reach out through community groups, municipalities like West Hollywood and word of mouth. The challenge is, however, getting to these isolated seniors and letting them know we’re here as an accepting and safe social environment."
For more information on LA’s LGBT senior services, visit these websites: