A year ago, in the span of a week, Friendship Centers director of community outreach Robert Rogers got calls from three gay men who had lost their longtime partners. Rogers listened to them sobbing as they shared their love and loss and knew they needed a place to go to share their stories with no judgment.
In Sarasota County, where more than a third of the population is 65 and older, the demand for services for the aging is high. But it’s a crisis for LGBTQ adults in their 70s, 80s and 90s. Most of them grew up in an era when many families—usually the first source of comfort and respite—turned their backs on them. Indeed, one in five LGBT adults “cited fear of double discrimination (for being LGBT and older) as a significant concern about aging” in a recent national survey, according to the nonprofit National Center on Caregiving. This fear has often resulted in older LGBTQ individuals living their last years in isolation, not only bereft of help with caregiving and chronic illness, but also emotional connection.
So Rogers set about creating support groups at the Friendship Centers so that LGBTQ individuals could talk about aging. One is a monthly general discussion group and the other is a weekly loss and grief support group. Rogers expected about a dozen people to show up at the inaugural general discussion, but 45 men and women walked through the door. They talked about everything from shifting national politics to preparing wills that would protect their loved ones. “They shared hard stories,” says Rogers, who is the facilitator. “It was powerful.” (The loss and grief support group is capped at 10 participants, which allows for more intimate conversations to help process the pain.)
“It’s surprising in this thriving community that it hasn’t been done before,” says Clark West, a retired therapist who joined the discussion group with his husband of 45 years, Elliott Mitchell. “So many people have fought so hard to be themselves and be authentic. There’s so much fear out there as they’re aging and their partners are aging. If they need care, they end up going back to these facilities where they have to go back in the closet, so to speak. There are so many people whose biological families have turned their backs on them. In our first group, that was our initial conversation: ‘What do we do as we get older? Who is going to take care of us?’”
Rogers says that, in a few short months, the discussion groups have “snowballed. Partnerships are developing, intergenerational opportunities are happening. It’s been an incredibly inspiring experience.” The meetings focus on “the resilience that comes out of vulnerability,” he says. “Our goal is that, after every conversation, we will leave empowered with positive thoughts.”
After all, “We need each other,” he says. “We all experience loss; we grieve in many ways for many things.”
The LGBTQ discussion group meets the second Wednesday of each month, and the loss and grief support group meets every Tuesday—both at the Sarasota Friendship Center at 1888 Brother Geenen Way.
CAN Community Health (formerly Community AIDS Network) convenes separate men’s and women’s support groups for people with HIV; cancommunityhealth.org.
Several area churches and synagogues have social clubs for their LGBTQ congregants.
Regional and National Resources
SAGE, advocacy and services for LGBT elders, sageusa.org, has a Tampa Bay chapter, metrotampabay.org/sage/
National Resource Center on LGBT Aging, the country’s first resource center for support for older LGBT adults, lgbtagingcenter.org
Center for Positive Aging, another resource center on aging issues for the LGBTQ community, centerforpositiveaging.org/lgbt.html
American Society on Aging offers professional development, research and dialogue on LGBT aging issues, asaging.org/lain