Two local organizations are working to ensure senior citizens of the LGBT community are able to receive proper care and services.
The Grand Rapids Pride Center and the Area Agency on Aging of Western Michigan are among several organizations throughout the state taking part in SAGE Metro Detroit’s LGBT and Aging Initiative for 2017-18, funded by a $400,000 grant from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.
The initiative is meant to improve LGBT seniors’ access to care, reduce physical and mental isolation, and increase awareness of inclusive resources and services.
“There are specific things that older LGBT adults face that our straight counterparts don’t go through,” said Larry DeShane Jr., Pride Center administrator.
With age comes plenty of other issues, DeShane noted, but LGBT seniors also worry about unacceptance, discrimination and even violence because of their identities.
“We find that many LGBT older adults do not feel comfortable sharing their sexual orientation and/or gender identity and reach out for support only when they are enduring a health crisis,” said Jackie O’Connor, executive director of the Agency on Aging.
“Not feeling accepted by your local community or personal health care provider increases the isolation experienced in LGBT seniors, leaving them at risk for serious health concerns.”
Among other efforts, the Grand Rapids organizations are continuously compiling a list of LGBT-friendly businesses and services in nine West Michigan counties. Many types of services are included in the list, such as caregiving, counseling, dental and vision, legal, home repair, Medicare and Medicaid assistance, transportation and more.
When it comes to health care, the initiative is meant to make LGBT seniors aware of options that will allow them the comfort to be open about their needs, DeShane said.
DeShane, for example, said he chooses to see a doctor who is a gay man because it allows a level of comfort and openness he may not otherwise feel, especially because some doctors may be ignorant about the specific health concerns gay men face.
LGBT seniors having access to LGBT-friendly services — even a plumber — is important, he said.
Without that assurance, DeShane said they might feel the need to put away photos and “de-gay” their homes before in-home service. That’s all to avoid discrimination and protect their safety.
“We would love to think that all doctors and all professionals are just there to offer a great service,” he said, adding that’s not always true.
There are votes and rulings in this country deciding whether LGBTQ people should be protected against discrimination, DeShane added, which does not instill confidence in that group.
FBI statistics from 2016 show 18.4 percent — 1,386 cases — of reported hate crimes were committed against LGBTQ people in the U.S.
Older LGBT adults are of a generation in which being “out” was not as acceptable as for younger generations, DeShane said. That, plus Michigan’s legal discrimination, as he put it, and many members of the group go back into the closet or de-transition.
“Purely out of fear that when they have to access resources, they’re going be discriminated against, based on a lifetime of being discriminated against,” DeShane said. “We come from a very conservative Christian area, and many adults are still wary by the way they’ve been treated by too many in the religious sector.”
He added, “Still to this day, it’s not safe for me to hold my partner’s hand walking down the street in every area of this place, whereas if I were heterosexual and I was holding a woman’s hand, there’s no place that’s not safe.”
While the Michigan Civil Rights Commission in May made an interpretation that sexuality and gender identity are included under the state’s anti-discrimination laws, Attorney General Bill Schuette declared the opposite last month.
The Pride Center has been keeping a list of LGBTQ-friendly businesses for most of the organization’s 30-year existence, including mental health services, wedding planners and, now, divorce lawyers, DeShane said.
Since the initiative’s start in 2017, the two organizations have worked to expand the list — beginning with the Agency on Aging’s business directory — and better inform seniors about the resources.
The list compiled through the initiative includes businesses that have inclusive policies and have gone through training.
“As soon as you have a resource guide in print, it’s immediately out of date because other people want to put their names in the guide,” O’Connor said.
As the Agency on Aging takes calls from seniors, staff has been trained, as part of the initiative, to make callers aware of the resources, O’Connor said.
O’Connor added staff has been trained to be more inclusive when asking for demographics information from seniors. When a man says he is married, for example, staff should ask for a “spouse’s” name, not assuming he is married to a wife.
O’Connor said small changes like this assure callers the organization is inclusive, and it teaches staff it’s OK to ask those questions.
Before the Agency on Aging sends someone to a client’s house, staff has made sure to gather enough information to approach services properly, O’Connor said.
That training makes DeShane feel comfortable referring seniors to the Agency on Aging, he said.
DeShane said the initiative has allowed him to expand training sessions by the Pride Center that focus more on the older LGBT adults.
The Pride Center already provides training to companies and organizations on how to be more inclusive. DeShane has recently provided training for Meijer, Kent County Friend of the Court and Farmers Insurance.
The grant provided $12,000 over two years to the Pride Center and $17,000 over two years to the Agency on Aging, according to Kathleen LaTosch, a consultant on the project.
While the initiative concludes at the end of this year, DeShane said the purpose is to kickstart organizations around the state to continue the efforts. The same work is being done in the Detroit, Great Lakes Bay and Upper Peninsula regions.
DeShane said inclusive businesses and organizations should contact the Pride Center or Agency on Aging to be included in their directories.
LGBT seniors needing services should call the Area Agency on Aging of Western Michigan at (616) 456-5664 or the Grand Rapids Pride Center at (616) 458-3511. The resource guide is available at aaawm.org.
“Going through one of us, you know you’re not going to be discriminated against,” DeShane said.