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GAY AND GRAY: Outreach to Elders

[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.]

Jan couvillon offers water 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.


Being alone with no one to turn to has to be devastating, but doubly so if you are afraid.

I'm glad there are caring volunteers to help them and only wish more people would do so.

Thank goodness for organizations like New Leaf. I do not live in a big city but problems such as described can happen anywhere and it is important that we are alerted to the possiblilty.

I've had occasion as a rehab therapist in various different settings to encounter and observe a few gay patients interactions with various levels of caregiving staff. I never saw anything but the utmost respect offered by rehab team members and staff.

I can imagine there might be facilities for which that might not be true, or individuals whose behavior might be prejudiced. I've just never seen it or heard others say it was occurring where I've worked. The people I know and work with would not tolerate any sort of such discrimination, nor would I.

I would think there would be some facility champions everywhere for those who might be subjected to mistreatment and would become advocates. One aid would be for the patient to have frequent visitors who establish contact with staff and elicit their support.

I remember one place I worked a middle-aged lesbian of traditional feminine appearance and her partner who visited. The partner's appearance (very large physical build wearing attire most often seen on males)caused some staff to be aloof, but I never saw or heard of either of them receiving anything less than appropriate respect. The patient was the recipient of touching, occasional hugs as were all patients.

At that same facility what now comes to mind is memory of a slightly younger man positive for Aids who had a stroke for whom I provided extensive therapy. His mother was his primary support and I worked closely with the two of them who also were from a racial minority group.

His overall skills and abilities developed to a much high level than that of the lesbian patient I described. He ultimately was able to return home. She required long term care and moved elsewhere. That's when regular frequent visitations for all patients of any orientation is important to be assured of optimum patient care.

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