CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As the LGBT community ages and growing numbers of out men and women transition into retirement, new and rising concerns over LGBT inclusion and access in health care, retirement facilities and aging services are taking on new urgency.
In Charlotte, a small-but-dedicated group of community members are taking the lead on discussing the issues, ranking priorities and charting a course toward filling the gaps.
Bets McCurley and Cheryl Roberge are the leading forces behind the new Aging Solutions Dinner Group, which has met monthly since April. The dinner and discussion group has attracted consistent support and involvement from two dozen or more people, each willing to assist in exploring critical needs for today and those forthcoming in the future.
McCurley, 67, is a volunteer with AARP, where she is a team leader with the national group’s “Decide. Create. Share.” campaign. The AARP program encourages aging women to “decide what kind of future you envision for yourself, create a plan that will help achieve those goals and share that plan with the important people in your life.”
With Roberge, McCurley is taking that mission to the city’s larger LGBT community. And, it all started when two friends were facing uneasy choices as they entered retirement communities.
“Both are significantly older, in their 80s,” McCurley says, explaining their decision to go back into the closet when they entered the retirement community. “They had been out since they were teenagers and to go back into the closet, I decided I did not want that future for myself.”
McCurley couldn’t find anyone else who was interested until, by chance, she ran across an announcement publicizing Roberge’s presentation on LGBT aging at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Aging Coalition last May.
Roberge, 57, is a former director of client services at the Regional AIDS Interfaith Network and currently works as director of operations at Different Roads Home. She got a phone call from McCurley around the time of her presentation and the two met for coffee.
“We met and found out both of us have an interest in this, not just for ourselves, but for future generations,” Roberge says. “Knowing how this particular city is with LGBT issues, we knew there was going to be issues in the aging world as far as housing, nursing homes, obviously all the legalities with us not being able to marry in the state of North Carolina.”
The two put together a flyer and put out announcements for their first Aging Solutions dinner in April. Twenty-six people showed, and from that meeting a list of concerns and priorities were developed.
Among the most significant issues facing local LGBT elders is the need for LGBT sensitivity training for assisted living and other facility staff, along with more education and competency regarding aging issues for both the community and professions. The group also identified gaps and disparities. Many LGBT elders have faced the loss of family connections and financial disparities between LGBT and straight elders, and especially so among lesbians, creates difficulties for those needing access to care.
McCurley and Roberge have been encouraged by the commitment they’ve seen from those attending the monthly discussion and dinner group. In particular, they say they’re surprised at the diversity it has attracted — engaging both LGBT and straight ally community members, aging professionals and practitioners, young people and older people.
“We didn’t really know where this was going,” Roberge says of the first meeting. “But, we knew there were people who wanted to talk about it and our hope was to bring all those people together.”
For the next two months, the group will continue discussing needs. In August, they’ll also begin to drill down into specific needs, creating what they call “Issues & Solutions Groups” where volunteers can work on specific topic like housing, support services, legal and financial issues, health buddy systems, caregiving and social circles.
“It’s time to start drilling down,” says McCurley.
The increased local attention to aging issues will certainly come as good news to community members like Linda Lawyer. At 66, she recently retired after more than two decades at Duke Energy. Still involved in community leadership and serving on the board of the Charlotte Lesbian & Gay Fund, Lawyer says more discussion is needed.
“I think we need it especially for people who don’t have partners,” says Lawyer, who recently married her partner of 22 years. She feels her partner and her will be able to navigate their elder issues more easily together, but is concerned for those without the close assistance of a loved one.
Like McCurley and Roberge, Lawyer, too, sees a growing need for housing and social opportunities. An LGBT-inclusive or friendly senior center or other social activities programming could be a benefit.
Ed DePasquale, 81, also envisions a future where LGBT elders can live openly and comfortably. He says he’s lucky to have the support of friends, living independently in a small apartment attached to the home of close friends. His daughter, a nurse, “swears if there’s any blood left in her body,” he’ll never enter a nursing home.
The community he says needs to “build a facility designed for gay people and run by understanding people where people can live as they are.”
Similar projects have sprung up in places like Philadelphia and Los Angeles — and they take resources, drawing support from private donations and even local, state and federal grants.
“It would take dollars, there’s no ifs, ands or buts about it,” DePasquale says. “But, I think there’s enough gay people interested in it who would be willing to pay a decent price for a facility where they could stay.”
DePasquale adds, “It’s something we as a gay community need to think of because it needs to be done. Right now, we’re in pretty good shape, but, you know what, we’re getting a hell of a lot older and we’re living a lot longer than we’re supposed to. I had no idea I’d see this age — 81 years and close to 82 now.”
McCurley and Roberge hope to take all the suggestions and solutions they collect and turn them into viable options. They welcome the community’s involvement and encourage them to get involved. Their Aging Solutions Dinner Group meets the third Monday of each month, 7 p.m. at Flying Biscuit Cafe, 4241 Park Rd. For more information or to RSVP for a meeting (up to 50 can be provided for in reservations), email firstname.lastname@example.org.