Even before she began searching for senior housing, Marti Smith had heard the horror stories.
Her gay friends told Smith, a lesbian, that when their partners entered assisted living the partners had to hide their homosexuality to avoid bias and bullying. Even Smith's friends had to play along when they visited.
“Visitors were told not to act gay or dress gay because of fear of harassment when they left,” said Smith, 73. “That’s very common.”
Earlier this month, an Evanston senior living community, the Merion, became the first in the state to achieve the top lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender competency credential from the nonprofit SAGE, a move that reflects a growing awareness of the challenges facing LGBT elders in senior housing. Both locally and nationally, seniors and advocates are calling for more welcoming and supportive housing. “My assessment is we still have a really, really long way to go,” said Britta Larson, senior services director at Chicago’s Center on Halsted, a comprehensive LGBTQ community center.
“Many organizations that serve seniors across Chicago are religiously affiliated, and so right there, out of the gate, you have a huge barrier to overcome. And even if a particular community or denomination is LGBT-friendly from the outside, an LGBT older adult would probably assume that they’re not welcoming.”
The number of LGBT people in the U.S. ages 50 and older is estimated at 2.7 million and is expected to grow dramatically over the next few decades, according to a 2017 report in The Gerontologist.
In senior living communities, LGBT people live side by side with heterosexuals who came of age when homosexuality was considered a mental illness or even a criminal offense. Bullying and discrimination are common, Larson said.
An outspoken older gay Chicagoan told Larson he had ridden the elevator in his senior housing with another resident who objected to the facility’s gay support group, using a gay slur.
“Well, I’m one of them, so you can shut the hell up,” the gay senior shot back. Larson chuckled when she related that response, but she said that for an LGBT person who is less confident, that kind of hostility could be intimidating.
The Merion got involved in LGBT training as an indirect result of a 2016 lawsuit filed by Marsha Wetzel, now 70, against a Niles senior living facility that she said had failed to halt physical and verbal abuse inflicted against her by other residents because she is a lesbian.
Wetzel, whose case against Glen St. Andrew Living Community is now before the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, said in an interview that she’s received 150 letters of support, some from as far away as Australia, Iceland and Sweden.
Among those who took notice was Mark Zullo, the director of sales and marketing at the Merion.
“I can’t believe this is happening,” he remembers saying to himself when he saw a TV news report about Wetzel, who was attacked from behind, knocked off her scooter and called derogatory names, according to the lawsuit. Zullo set up staff training through SAGE, and he said the response was positive.
“I think the biggest fear was, am I saying the wrong thing?” he said. Training involved case studies and discussions and addressed practical issues. One lesson learned: Asking a senior about his wife signals that you’re assuming he is heterosexual; it’s better to use a neutral term such as partner.
Smith, the senior who heard horror stories about assisted living, is lucky. She landed one of 79 spots at the Town Hall apartments in Boystown, a gay-friendly senior living complex with a 200-person waiting list.
“I cannot tell you how important it is to be a 73-year-old out, card-carrying lesbian where I live,” she said. “I don’t have to worry. We have two social workers who are funded by the center and the residents, and I don’t have to explain things to them.”
Nara SchoenbergChicago Tribune