Need for gay senior housing growing, say advocates

Thursday, January 10, 2002

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- When Jalna Perry could no longer afford her assisted living center, she knew she would have to move, and that meant more than just giving up friends and a comfortable place to live.

It meant losing the peace of mind of knowing her neighbors had accepted her homosexuality.

Perry, 71, has lived in a public senior apartment complex for almost a year now but doesn't know any neighbors by name, partly because she's unsure how they'll react when they learn she's a lesbian.

She wishes there were a place she could live where her sexuality might not be an issue in meeting new people.

"It really isn't any different from any other place, except you wish it were different," she said of her apartment at The Manning House. "It would be much more comfortable living in an area where there are a lot of gays."

As baby boomers age, the need for gay senior housing is growing, advocates say.

Without it, they say, older gays are forced back into the closet to avoid discrimination in traditional housing, where people are generally assumed to be straight.

Gay worries

Being comfortable in their home is particularly important to older people, said Mary Thorndell, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Association of Retired Persons. Gay elders worry more about being neglected by medical personnel or insulted because they're more vulnerable, she said.

"The stage when you're losing physical and mental capacity is no time to be a victim," Thorndell said.

The private Palms of Manasota in Bradenton, Fla., is the one development for gay seniors in the country. But there's talk of other housing in places such as San Francisco and Boston.

The aim of gay-specific communities is not to segregate, said David Aronstein, who is trying to raise $40 million for the Stonewall Communities development for gays in Boston.

"What we're really looking for is a sense of continuity and community," he said. "What we don't want to become is a fortress."

Stonewall will be developed at an undetermined site in the middle of Boston, allowing residents to remain integrated in an urban area. Planned amenities include an on-site pharmacy, hair salon and a medical practice staffed by gay and lesbian healthcare experts.

Many too expensive

While welcomed by gay advocates, communities like Stonewall are likely too expensive for many elders, said Peg Byron, a spokeswoman for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a national organization working for the civil rights of homosexuals.

For example, a single family house in Manasota goes for $150,000 to $175,000, according to president and CEO John Goodwin. Aronstein said Stonewall's units will be aimed mainly at middle- to upper-income buyers.

That's why advocacy must include making senior housing operators more sensitive to the needs of gays, Byron said. "Our interest is not primarily in special housing, but for gays to be safe and welcome in any area."

Even in the gay community, the issues of elderly gay people receive scant attention, Thorndell said.

"Gays have trouble picturing themselves as older people," she said.

An obsession with youth in the gay media and the loss to AIDS of many vocal community leaders who would now be nearing old age are to blame, said Terry Kaelber, executive director of New York-based gay elder advocacy group Senior Action in a Gay Environment.

In addition, older gays are less likely to have children who advocate for them, or even to speak up for themselves, having come of age before the gay liberation movement in the late 1960s, Kaelber said.

"Certain seniors find the closet a safe haven," he said. "You can imagine growing up in a time when all the authorities of society said that because of who you love, you don't belong."

Once a mental illness

Sixty-year-old Bruce Steeves remembers those times well. Homosexuality was still classified a mental illness in 1966 when Steeves met his partner of 35 years, who asked to remain anonymous.

Steeves laughs when he recalls the day they met at the old Napoleon Club in Boston, first seeing each other across the dance floor, then tipping their glasses at each other before sharing a dance.

For the past 25 years, they have lived in an elegant brownstone in Bay Village in Boston's South End, but they'll have to leave soon. The stairs are too much of a chore for Steeves' 76-year-old partner, who suffers with cancer, a compressed fracture of the spine and heart problems.

Money is not an obstacle for Steeves and his partner, but there are no options if they want to continue the urban lives they've grown used to in a senior community they know will be friendly to gays. The gay culture comes with its own concerns, its own literature, its own language, Steeves said. They just want to be around people who understand those things.

The lack of housing options leaves Steeves wondering about the future. The prospect of not being able to continue living with his partner frightens him.

"Any changes to that would be devastating to both of us," he said.

Steeves said it's too late in life to step back from important relationships just because some people don't approve of how he's chosen to live. He's hoping Aronstein's project succeeds.

"We do live in recognition that life is not eternal," Steeves said. "You want to be with your peers."

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