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Individual Heroism Propels LGBTQ Elders in COVID-19

This Influencer in Aging shares how his nonprofit is stepping up


Part of the The Coronavirus Outbreak: What You Need to Know Special Report

(Across caregiving and community, business and intergenerational attitudes, the pandemic and how we respond to it could change us forever. Next Avenue turned to some of our Influencers in Aging, a diverse group of thought leaders, for their insights, counsel and opinions of what could lie ahead — if we choose.)

At SAGE, the country’s largest and oldest organization dedicated to improving the lives of LGBTQ older people, we hear every day the heroic stories of bravery, grit and determination from our elders during the coronavirus outbreak.

One LGBTQ elder spent years shoveling coal into the burner of the New York City community building where she worked for decades as a superintendent. Recently, she snapped her clavicle in the middle of the night. She waited until the morning to tell her wife and doesn’t want to burden her local hospital that is overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, so created her own sling and is toughing it out.

Another lost the use of his right side due to a heart attack many years ago but is still navigating New York City buses during this crisis when he needs to go shopping.

While they wait for this public support, our elders are doing amazing things on their own and exhibiting the strength that propelled this generation to found our modern LGBTQ movement.

But as inspiring as these stories are, individual heroism isn’t enough for our LGBTQ elder community. Our pioneers still need support to make it through. Many are struggling to get food to eat, due to both financial challenges and the severe health risks associated with going outside.

A Community at the Epicenter of the Pandemic

While older Americans are among those most vulnerable to COVID-19, LGBTQ older people are truly at the epicenter of the pandemic in numerous respects apart from their age.

Even before the coronavirus, LGBTQ elders dealt with acute social isolation and very thin support networks — many are without children and disconnected from their families of origin, and 25% have no one to contact in case of an emergency.

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LGBTQ older people also grapple with serious health disparities that are particularly consequential in the time of COVID-19.

The LGBTQ community is among the most affected by HIV/AIDS, which results in compromised immune systems. Disproportionately high levels of smoking among LGBTQ people leads to compromised lungs. And because of past and current discrimination, older members of LGBTQ communities can be wary of seeking out services and care, meaning that many do not have established relationships with service and care providers to turn to through this public health crisis.

Resiliency and Determination

Despite these unusually daunting challenges, in SAGE’s work with tens of thousands of LGBTQ older adults across this country, we see extraordinary resiliency and determination. Having lived through the AIDS epidemic, which decimated a generation of LGBTQ community members, and having survived decades of witch hunts and violence, our LGBTQ elders are survivors and thrivers.

New York City, where SAGE is headquartered, is making great progress in providing home-delivered meals to elders and making food available to all takers at local public schools. But there are still kinks in the system, and some people fall through the cracks. And there’s the psychological toll of day after day of isolation for our elders, many of whom struggle with technology and don’t have people to call on the phone or Zoom.

We’re working hard to step into this breach — in New York City, SAGE is calling more than 2,000 elders every day to make sure they hear from somebody and get help if needed. Last week, we launched SAGEConnect, a national emergency response initiative that links volunteers with LGBTQ elders who desperately need their phone to ring.

We know from experience that even this kind of contact can make all the difference.

One LGBTQ octogenarian in New York City recently expressed appreciation to SAGE for “letting people know that they’re not invisible” and said “that someone does care about you in the middle of this crazy crisis really makes me feel a heck of a lot better.”

There are ways in which service providers like SAGE can make a critical difference — through meal deliveries, telephonic support and virtual programming.

We also need public policies, programs and funding to back up these community-based efforts. It’s encouraging to see an initial injection of new federal funding into state aging offices and area agencies on aging. We need to see those funds quickly reach elders in need in the community. And we’ll need to quickly see another round of funding that specifically targets particularly marginalized communities, including LGBTQ elders and elders of color.

While they wait for this public support, our elders are doing amazing things on their own and exhibiting the strength that propelled this generation to found our modern LGBTQ movement.

Elders are reaching out to each other and — in some cases — reconnecting with family members who have been estranged for many years but are ready to put old prejudices and hurts aside in a time of crisis. While so much social connection has been disrupted by COVID-19, our elders are reknitting some of our torn social fabric.

Let’s hope that both community-based service providers and government can follow the example of SAGE’s constituents by stepping up to the plate with creativity and speed, and giving our elders the support they need to complement their own heroism.

By Michael Adams
Michael Adams, a 2016 Next Avenue Influencer in Aging, is CEO of SAGE, the oldest and largest organization in the country dedicated to improving the lives of LGBT older adults. Adams is also the board chair of the American Society on Aging.

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