[EDITORIAL NOTE: Gay and Gray is a monthly column at Time Goes By written by Jan Adams (bio) in which she thinks out loud for us on issues of aging lesbians and gay men. Jan also writes on many topics at her own blog, Happening-Here.]
When I approached the table at the demonstraton to preserve services for elders, Jan Couvillon instantly sized me up as one of the people she works with and handed me a bottle of water. Couvillon is the actvities manager for New Leaf Outreach to Elders.
"I manage 24 social activities, put on five of them myself, and get out the newsletter too," she explained.
She stepped away from the table long enough to give me a quick overview of New Leaf programs. The gay friendly agency makes social service referrals, trains "friendly visitors” to buddy with lonely elders, conducts in-home assessments and keeps up a busy calendar of community building offerings.
Since this is famously expensive San Francisco, Couvillon told me much of New Leaf's work concerns affordable housing: keeping elders in affordable rentals they've long occupied; explaining the few protections that people have against owners seeking to turn their buildings into condos; and helping elders find alternative spaces if they lose the ones they have. Many poorer LGBT elders live alone in rooms in the Tenderloin, a densely-packed, low-income, center city district.
Couvillon's social activities programs seek to break the isolation that can lock LGBT elders off from community. She says many of her folks say they "don't know anyone like me." Once they find out they can meet others "like them," many will come to hear speakers, take gentle yoga classes, join writing groups and attend potlucks. She annually runs a series on sexuality in older women for older women.
Most of these groups are single gender. Couvillon explained: "Well, the men and the women don't want to be together. They say 'we're gay or lesbian after all.' I finally got the social groups to come together for Thanksgiving by cooking for them."
Couvillon explained that almost all the elders she works with are afraid - afraid for their safety as lesbians or gays. Many have been in the closet most of their lives. They fear that as they age, they might end up in a "senior living facility" or a nursing home. If other people were to know they are gay, they might be abused by other residents or staff. Or, perhaps worse, they might just be left alone, "stuck off in a room somewhere and no one would ever touch them."
"Does this happen?" I asked Couvillon.
She looked worried: "I think it happens more than New Leaf is aware of. Because so many of our elders are in the closet, they don't have anyone to tell."At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Nancy Leitz: A Little Boy's Worry.