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Enjoying gay maturity

by Paul Varnell

Individuals over 60 are the fastest growing group within the LGBT community.
With better nutrition and health care, people are not only living longer, but living active, flourishing lives into later years than people did formerly. This is — or will be — you.

In his fascinating and extremely useful book “Age Wave” (1989), writer Ken Dychtwald breaks the “over 50” group into three cohorts. The youngest phase, 50-64, he calls “middle adulthood,” the 65-79 phase he calls “late adulthood” and the over-80 phase he calls “old age.”

The important change here is the refusal to designate people 65-79 as “old.” Certainly, people who are that age (e.g., me) do not think of themselves as old, unless they believe a century-old social label. According to Dychtwald, surveys find that people past 50 generally say they feel 10 to 20 years younger than their chronological age. That sounds about right. And we expect to be treated that way. As a man in “late adulthood” I sure don’t feel old.

Check back when I’m 80, okay?

Not only are more adults working past 65, whether full or part-time, they are continuing to live socially engaged and independent lives. Dychtwald reports that some marketing experts have started referring to older Americans as “suppies,” senior urban professionals, or “rappies,” retired affluent professionals.

And there are a lot of us. Remember “baby boomers” — people who were born 1946-1964? If you do the math, you discover that people born in 1946 are now in their 60s and the rest of the huge population bulge of baby boomers is following close behind. In short, they are the fastest growing demographic in the country. More than one-third of the U.S. population is over 50.
How does this affect the gay community? Most obviously it means that suddenly the fastest growing group in our community, as with the nation as a whole, is in the over-60 age group. That will become increasingly obvious over the next five to 10 years. That presents us with challenges and opportunities.

• First, how can we keep mature gays actively involved in the community rather than creating a community that no longer speaks to their needs?

• Second, how can the community (businesses; community, service, and political groups; clubs; social networks; etc.) use the talents, knowledge and skills mature gays have acquired in their jobs and elsewhere?

• And third, how should the community adjust in order to deal with the increasing average age among those gays who stay involved?

Most of us older gays certainly want to continue to be productive, to make a contribution, to feel that our lives count for something. Hardly anyone wants to sit at home all day and watch television. Being gay is a well-integrated part of our lives, so many of us would like to continue to be “out” in a gay context and to be actively involved in some way.

Some of this is beginning to happen by itself. But we can encourage the process with active outreach and innovative programs. There are, for instance, significant uses for volunteers or part-time employees at many gay organizations.

Rick Garcia, political director of Equality Illinois, tells me that most of the volunteers at his organization are seniors. “We couldn’t function without our seniors,” he said. They answer the phones, open the mail, print and mail materials, keep the account books — everything that makes the office run smoothly.

How our big city gay community centers respond will be a key component. They can make activities “maturity friendly” without segregating off mature gays into a niche of their own: We do not want to sit around and hear old gay people complain about their problems and pains. The trick to overcoming the generation gap — or gaps — is to connect with people who share our interests, not our ages.

The community centers could host low-cost adult education classes, sponsor play-going groups, sponsor art exhibits and gallery tours, host musical performances (e.g., piano, classical guitar), provide space for discussion groups on particular topics, offer handicraft lessons, show how to start a blog, and/or arrange forums or debates on community issues. Many of these activities would be of particular interest to mature gays who have more leisure to explore new interests, but would not be of interest to them exclusively.

If community centers fail to do these things, someone else can. To other mature gays I say this: start a group, a club, an activity. Seek out others who share your interests. You’ll probably learn things as well as meet interesting people. Start with a group of friends and let it slowly build by word of mouth.

Many community centers can at least provide space. If they cannot, many libraries offer space to community groups. Like life itself, maturity is a “Do It Yourself” project.

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