There’s a story I recall as a younger gay man I’ve heard repeated a few times over the years since, in some form or another.
Two elderly women, who had shared the same home for most of their adult lives, had begun to face health issues and physical challenges. Marriage Equality was somewhere in the distant future, and the couple had no legally binding paperwork to keep their relationship safe and protected.
As their lives deteriorated, eventually well-meaning, but ignorant members from both of the couple’s families swooped in and separated the two women by placing them in elder care facilities states apart from each other, but close to their perspective biological families. Though the end result was never made clear to me, it isn’t difficult to imagine the heartbreak and emotional isolation that followed, and its lack of benefit toward psychological and physical well-being.
The story was shared during a time when the American Psychiatric Association had removed gay and lesbian sexual orientation from a list of mental illness just over a decade prior. A then-deadly disease was stealing the lives of countless gay men throughout major U.S. cities, and most Americans feared or barely tolerated and understood what was then referred to as simply The Gay and Lesbian Community.
While scenarios such as the one I recalled may not play out quite like they did in years past, anti-gay bigotry still exists, and our community still faces challenges and discrimination.
How many Gay Seniors Live in Charlotte?
According to a Gallup Poll conducted between 2012 and 2014 and published in qnotes in March of 2015, Charlotte Metro then had an LGBTQ population of approximately 90,000. Considering the rate of growth since that time, it is likely that tally has increased to somewhere over 100,000. Applying the same informational chart used for the community as a whole, it is likely that the current over-65 LGBTQ population numbers around 10,000.
What we can’t answer specifically with current data is where those 10,000 fall on this list:
• Rolling in Dough
• In the Middle-Income bracket
• Of meager means
Given how the economy is impacting the mainstream community at large, it’s reasonable to assume the LGBTQ population is little different. Most gay seniors are surviving Social Security paycheck to paycheck. A smaller percentage falls into relative comfort, or the Middle-Income bracket, while an even smaller number has substantial savings or is wealthy enough to truly enjoy their retirement years without worry.
LGBTQ Challenges in Secure Senior Housing
The LGBTQ community has seen a steady increase of acceptance as the 21st Century continues to move forward. According to a USA Today poll, 63 percent of Americans support Marriage Equality. A Quinnipiac University poll confirms 92 percent of Americans believe laws should protect gays and lesbians from being fired because of their sexual orientation. CNN’s poll shows us that, despite Donald Trump’s discriminatory order banning transgender individuals from serving in the military, 73 percent of Americans feel they should have the right to serve their country.
But let’s break this down to a personal, familial level. In an accepting family with mostly heterosexual children and perhaps one gay or lesbian offspring, where does the responsibility still tend to fall when it comes time to care for ailing and elderly parents?
The gay kid.
And it doesn’t matter if you’re single or partnered, or you have children or not.
The reality is, no matter how approving America has become on a political level, individual families, by and large, continue to show a marked lack of respect for the non-heterosexual and likely childless sibling.
That can become more problematic as the LGBTQ sibling enters into their own senior years.
Married or partnered gay and lesbian couples who lose their significant other for failing health reasons or advanced age can still find themselves in a tug of war with their loved one’s family over property and personal belongings or battling it out with a former employer over spousal benefits.
Single LGBTQ folk can also face their own personal brand of discrimination and hardship, it is oftentimes made even more difficult without a support network.
Dan Van Mourik initially moved to Charlotte in 1982 to take a position with the local theme park Carowinds. Later he became the associate editor of qnotes and eventually served as a manager at White Rabbit Books. Now he’s 70 years old, retired and a homeowner in the city’s Belmont neighborhood, just northeast of Uptown.
While his home is an old-style mill house built in the 1920s with little updating or remodeling, the surrounding area has become a real estate hot spot because of its proximity to Center City Charlotte.
Despite his years, Van Mourik is in excellent health.
“But you never know when that could suddenly change,” he says with a chuckle. “I could get hit by a bus tomorrow or become ill and require senior care at a facility at a moment’s notice.”
Van Mourik’s situation is not a particularly unusual one:
While his current income allows him to qualify for various benefits, should he find the need to move into permanent senior care residence, he would likely lose his benefit qualifications because of the amount of money he would receive from the sale of his home.
“I’m between a rock and a hard place, and I haven’t found an answer,” Van Mourik explains. “I’m trying to plan for the future, but I don’t know how to at this point.”
With no husband or partner, Van Mourik is on his own. He has no surviving family members he is close to or has had contact within the last 20 years.
While a solution may seem elusive, some creative thinking outside the standard box could provide Van Mourik an answer.
Theoretically, signing the house over to a trusted friend who maintains an account for him with the funds available he would otherwise receive as a direct payment, could allow Van Mourik access to the money in the form of an exchange of gifts. In this manner, his financial assets would not increase, leaving him in a position to continue to qualify for needed healthcare benefits and more.
Read on further for what might prove to be a resolution for Van Mourik’s dilemma.
How Welcoming are Eldercare Communities for LGBTQ Folk?
While the cost of living in a “Seniors Only” community can be daunting, especially a facility that provides services and amenities from status quo health to intensive care, there are options out there. All too often they may not be LGBTQ welcoming, making them inappropriate for married senior same-sex couples, or a pathway back into a long-forgotten closet to achieve peaceful coexistence.
In Charlotte, one facility reaching out to the LGBTQ community is Aldersgate.
Located on the grounds of what was once known as The Methodist Home, Aldersgate today is an all-inclusive, multi-cultural welcoming facility with employees who are given sensitivity training aimed specifically at directly benefiting the LGBTQ community
“We want everyone who is interested in making their home here to feel welcome,” says Brooks Shelley, director of marketing and brand strategy at Aldersgate.
“Gay, lesbian, straight, trans, Christian, Muslim. Everyone is welcome here.”
Aldersgate is located on Shamrock Dr. and Eastway Dr. in East Charlotte. For all intents and purposes, it’s practically a small town within a larger city, boasting individual houses, apartments, dining facilities, movie theaters, coffee shops and more.
Shelley explains how the process works, for those interested in exploring senior residential living there.
“You can choose to come here at any point on the continuum,” he offers.
“We have residents who are perfectly healthy individuals, some actually still choosing to work, who live in the various cottage, ranch style and apartment homes we have.”
“We also have assisted living facilities, skilled nursing care and memory care.”
Residents initially pay a one-time beginning fee, with pricing based on the kind of dwelling they choose or need, and then a standardized monthly fee to cover all needs.
Here’s where Van Mourik may likely find the resolution to his concerns, should the desire or need to move to an assisted living or full care facility arise. The one-time fee potential Aldersgate residents are required to pay would likely absorb Van Mourik’s cash from the sale of his house, placing him back in an income bracket that would provide him with a myriad of government-offered senior benefits.
This could be a solution for Van Mourik in that Aldersgate is a place he can be himself. That is something Shelley is particularly proud of Aldersgate’s effort with the LGBTQ community.
“We are the only facility in the nation to have platinum-level certification from SAGE (Services and Advocacy for LGBT Elders),” he says. “We’re in our second year.”
Visit Aldersgate on the Internet for more details.
While SAGE has proved to be an invaluable resource for seniors throughout the U.S., Charlotte does not currently have a chapter. As reported in qnotes last year), an attempt to establish one is underway via the efforts of Time Out Youth Center and Charlotte LGBTQ Elders.
Involvement and support are requested from the community to establish a SAGE chapter here. More information can be found at Charlotte LGBTQ Elders, as well as a Facebook page under the same name.
Current Solutions in Other Cities
Resources for LGBTQ senior care and residential facilities popular with LGBTQ seniors can be found throughout the U.S. in larger cities such as Chicago (the Town Hall Apartments offers 79 units in an active, predominantly gay neighborhood), Los Angeles (Triangle Square Apartments has studio, one and two-bedroom apartments for residents age 62 and over), New York (the 145-unit Ingersoll is set to open at summer’s end), San Francisco (Open House operates two buildings on Laguna St. with a total of 150 affordable units) and Houston (construction of a $16 million facility in the city’s Montrose neighborhood is currently underway).
In Philadelphia, there’s the John C. Anderson Apartment Building (JCAA), named after an African-American Philadelphia City Council member instrumental in the passage of the city’s civil rights bill protecting sexual minority individuals.
The JCAA is one of the first of its kind built specifically to cater to the LGBTQ community. That information is prominently displayed on the outside and inside of the building. However, that doesn’t preclude residents both straight and gay.
Mary Groce and her partner Susan Atlas reside there and have for the past two years.
“We signed up for it five years ago,” Groce recalls. “There’s a waiting list.” (Currently, there are about 300 on the waiting list.)
As fate would have it, the couple was offered the opportunity to move into the building at a time when they needed it the most.
“We were both dealing with illness,” says Groce. “With the expenses that were incurred we really needed to be here.”
The excitement in Groce’s voice while talking about living in the JCAA is evident. Not only is she a resident, but she is also the editor of the building’s newsletter, so she’s well-acquainted with her neighbors.
“It’s a great mix of people,” she says. “It’s about 40 percent straight and 60 percent gay. There are only three couples, and most of the gay residents are male.”
To be clear, the building is a senior residence facility. It does not currently offer healthcare services but does have an in-house social worker to help the residents navigate some of their needs. Furthermore, it provides a social atmosphere for LGBTQ seniors, comfortable and affordable living quarters, a multi-purpose room that frequently plays host to fabulous dinner parties and the beautiful Stonewall Gardens. Although management had originally intended a manicured outdoor area, residents of the building offered to maintain the spot, turning it into an award-winning garden recognized by the local Horticultural Society as the best Urban Garden for multiple years in a row, thanks to Frank Potopa and Elizabeth Coffey Williams, who serve as the primary gardeners. Cornelia Weathers is in charge of the roses.
“The roses are beautiful,” says Groce. “A couple here offered to take care of the site regularly, and many of the residents help out from time to time. I think it can be very therapeutic.”
The six-story apartment building, which boasts 56 units, officially opened Feb. 24, 2014.
To qualify for residency, tenants must earn between $8K and $33K annually. The building offers two floor plans, each with one bedroom. They range in price from $752 to $894. All the building’s expenses are covered by the rental income. It does not receive or need outside subsidies.
The Anderson was built for a total cost of 19.5 million dollars.
Philadelphia gay activist Mark Segal (an active member of the community since the 1960s) and the non-profit dmbFund, named for Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, joined forces with Penrose Partners, a local housing developer, to raze an older building and construct the JCAA. The project received two million dollars in grants from the city, six million from the state and 11. 5 million in low-income housing tax credits.
Those federal grants and tax credits are why the building must be open to all individuals and not exclusive to the LGBTQ community.
Currently the building is managed by Pennrose Properties, DMH and onsite manager Kecia Hilliard.
Designed with the urban-oriented LGBTQ senior in mind, residence there offers easy access to shopping, public transportation and dining.
Where Does Charlotte Go from Here?
Now that we’ve examined the Charlotte Metro LGBTQ Senior Community, challenges that it faces, opportunities that it currently has and things that could be, what are the answers to the main question that we must ultimately face at home? How do we take care of our LGBTQ senior citizens?
Taking a lesson from the history books of African-American communities in places like Atlanta and Charlotte, we must look within and out.
Reach out to business entrepreneurs within our community and those who are supportive outside of our community.
Every culture has different needs. Ours is no different. Most certainly it is of the utmost importance for our LGBTQ elders to be respected and valued for the paths they paved to make life the way it is for us today and to enjoy their golden years as much as possible.
When you think about giving back to the community ask yourself, what can I do to help an LGBTQ senior?
This story was produced by the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative, a partnership of six media companies working together in an effort started by the Solutions Journalism Network and funded by The Knight Foundation.