President's Corner – May 2017
A year ago Austin Prime Timers participated in a conference on aging sponsored by Metropolitan Community Church. One of the presentations that day was by AustinUp—an organization that was established as a result of the City of Austin’s efforts to reinvigorate it’s plan for making Austin an ”age friendly city”. Austin, like more than 100 cities around the country, has had a recognized age friendly plan for several years but little progress had been made. The intent of such plans is to guide city policies and service decisions in ways that will assist older residents in meeting the challenges associated with aging.
As a part of that effort AustinUp had conducted meetings with various groups, including neighborhood organizations and small businesses, to ask what was needed in their view to better serve Austinites as they aged. One of the ladies in the MCC audience that day asked a very logical question: “where is the LGBT input in this discussion?” Well, it turns out there hadn’t been any—and thus began an interesting experience.
WAKE UP CALL
On behalf of Prime Timers I offered to partner with AustinUp to sponsor a meeting to get that LGBT input— and boy, we got it! A room full of folks (including a number of Prime Timers) sat down on a Saturday morning last April and covered the walls with their ideas and concerns. Part of what I heard about aging that day:
“We are the Stonewall generation.” Among other things we are the first generation to go through the aging process “openly out”. We don’t have to look any further than our own founder, Woody Baldwin, to remember when going into senior living also meant going back into the closet. We should not assume that the agencies and institutions caring for seniors are prepared for that to change.
“There are more people HIV+ over 50 than younger than 50.” The “gay plague” is no longer just a young man’s issue. Unfortunately there are few services focused on the over 50 age group.
“’Gay friendly’ Austin has no organized LGBT community.” No community center, no “gayborhood”, no means of communicating and therefore no practical way for making our influence count. In today’s world we are recognizing that as a problem.
“Ageism is a guy thing.” It’s not a big issue for lesbians. There is no female version of Prime Timers in Austin or, as far as anyone knows, nationally. We are suffering from a self-inflicted wound.
As we sat and looked at all the issues we had raised the group came to one conclusion, that history has taught our generation two lessons: it’s likely a mistake to assume that somebody is going to solve all this for us and we know we can do it ourselves if we get organized, roll up our sleeves and get started. And with that the Austin LGBT Coalition on Aging was created.
I have learned a lot over the past year working with the folks in the Coalition. I had no idea that Austin was the second fastest growing metropolitan area in the nation for persons over 55. And during this past year Austin was recognized as one of the best places in the country for LGBT retirees. At the same time, the increased cost of living in the city has driven many long-time residents as well as new ones to the suburbs where services are less available and attitudes may be not as friendly. We’ve looked at some of the statistics that distinguish LGBT aging: while 80% of long-term care in the US is provided by family members we are twice as likely to be single and three to four times more likely to be without children than our heterosexual counterparts; for a number of reasons we are likely to have less financial resources; although we have higher levels of chronic and other health problems we are more likely to delay getting medical help and prescriptions. Of course it was no real surprise that growing older gay was going to be a unique experience. After all, was growing up gay any different than growing up straight?
I’ve seen a wide range of approaches for utilizing technology to solve some of the challenges associated with aging. Our local IBM facility has exhibited their work in using sensors to track our daily routine, from getting up to bedtime and utilizing computer analytics to spot health trends and safety issues so that seniors can have the option of “aging in place.” Others have demonstrated how technology can accommodate medical appointments without the need for transportation, thus solving a problem that seniors often face. I’ve learned about housing options that I never considered, from senior mobile home developments to “small houses,” senior coops and virtual villages—all enabled or constrained by local building codes and development regulations.
The most important thing that I have learned over the past year is the importance of social involvement. Faced with all of the issues that we identified it is understandable the LGBT seniors are tempted to withdraw, to make as comfortable a nest as they can and crawl into it. While that may appear to be the easiest, if not the best solution, it is actually the worst thing we can do. Social isolation has become recognized as an important contributing factor in increased morbidity, or putting it more plainly: a shorter life. In England emergency crews are trained to look for signs of social isolation when responding to emergency calls and when they spot issues they call in agencies to address the problems. Woody intuitively recognized this years ago when he founded Prime Timers and it is as true today as it was then: we don’t just need other people to help us get tasks done, we need that contact and involvement to keep us going.
On Saturday, May 6 the Coalition will host its next community meeting from 10 a.m. to noon at Leadership Austin. You’ll find the details in your calendar along with all the other opportunities we’ve got planned for Prime Timers this month. I hope you’ll join us as we talk about the things we’ve accomplished thus far and start planning next steps – including tackling the options for senior housing. But whether you join the conversation on LGBT aging, attend our annual banquet or play dominoes –
It’s good for you!