Dallas has a reputation for having one of the most organized LGBT communities in the country. Whatever it was, Dallas had a group for that. From civil rights to religious groups of every denomination, from the Gay Gun Lover’s Club to book clubs, professional groups and sports clubs, Dallas organized.
When the AIDS crisis hit, the community organized in full gear.
But when it came to services for the elderly, we failed. We just never expected to get old.
Services for people with HIV were based on care for the elderly, but during the AIDS crisis, as people ran from one funeral to tend to someone else who could no longer take care of himself, no one thought about the future. No one had time to worry, “Who will take care of me when I get old?”
But Robert Emery said he’s been thinking about just that for quite some time.
“We have been working on [LGBT elder care] since 1999 in different permutations,” Emery said.
The need for such services were highlighted in dramatic fashion in 2010 when a social worker from the Dallas Police Department’s Crisis Intervention Unit called Dallas Voice for help in locating family or friends of longtime community activist and former political candidate Jack Borden. He was having health and memory problems and was living on the streets.
No family could be located, and Borden was placed in a nursing facility where he died alone.
In 2011, local activist Cannon Flowers spearheaded the effort to circulate a questionnaire to try to determine the LGBT community’s needs and concerns. The first question was, “What do you think is the most pressing need for the aging LGBT community?”
Of those who responded, 85 percent said the top priority was transitional/senior living facilities where LGBT equality is respected.
Emery has been involved in some bold attempts to acquire properties to house senior services. In 2005, he was involved in an attempt to purchase Old Parkland Hospital, before Harlan Crow scooped up the property.
Last year, a group tried to purchase ParkGate on Wycliff Avenue at the Tollway entrance, which once served as Braniff Airlines’ stewardess school.
The property was used as an assisted living facility for years, but had closed.
From that attempt, a new non-profit group called SafeHaven formed. Its goal is to purchase property in Oak Lawn to build a 16-unit assisted-living facility and grow from there.
To research what’s out there, Emery said he’s visited the majority of assisted-living facilities in the Dallas area. He made appointments by saying he is looking for a place for his mother.
“I present myself as if I’m looking for my mom,” he said. “Then I drop the notion it’s my mother and her partner.”
If it’s a facility with single rooms only, he suggests she recently lost her partner.
Then he asks the question: “Is my mother, who is lesbian, welcome here?” The answer is usually yes. So he asks what activities they have that she’ll be interested in. The answer has been a resounding: No specific activities.
“You can be as gay-friendly as you want, but if there’s no activity for me, I’m cut off,” he said.
Even worse, he said, there are no programs in place to protect LGBT residents from bullying by staff or other residents. So many people who have been out all their lives have to go into the closet when they enter a senior facility.
Emery said SafeHaven’s motto is “respect and protect.” That includes respecting the lives of LGBT people by encouraging them to continue to participate in the community as much as they can and being their authentic selves while protecting them from any physical harm.
Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders, known as SAGE, is a New York-based organization addressing the needs of the elderly. This week, the organization launched a national initiative and identified several strategies to expand housing opportunities for LGBT older seniors.
In addition to building housing, SAGE proposed training existing housing facilities to provide housing in an LGBT-welcoming, non-discriminatory manner. Public policy must bar discrimination against older LGBT people.
SAGE also suggested educating older LGBT people in how to look for LGBT-friendly housing and how to exercise their rights.
Flowers has also been working on issues of aging in the LGBT community for a number of years, and on Feb. 10, he will be attending a White House conference on LGBT aging. He said he expects the major focus to be on housing.
In addition to providing housing, Flowers said he’d like to see a buddy program initiated.
During the height of the AIDS crisis, Oak Lawn Community Services ran a program called The Buddy Project. A caregiver was paired with someone with AIDS and several times a week or more, the buddy would help with errands, get to the doctor, make sure he had food and more.
Flowers said a program like that might have avoided someone like Borden suddenly finding himself homeless and no longer in a position to know where to turn or what to do.
Flowers said he hopes to tap into a wealth of information at the White House conference.
“The reason I’m going is I know there’s a need not only in North Texas but across the country,” Flowers said. “I want to see what that need is, what sort of funding we need to address it and maybe find some likely sources of funding, both from the government and private foundations.”
He said he hopes to meet some people who’ve had success elsewhere caring for their aging LGBT populations and exchange ideas.
“There’s no reason to re-invent the wheel,” Flowers said.
Community activist Kay Wilkinson is concerned about keeping the elderly actively engaged and wants younger members of the community to interact with older community members.
“As we age, unless we have a great network, we tend to isolate,” Wilkinson said.
She also recalled the Buddy Project with fondness, noting that she had buddied with five people with HIV/AIDS. “When you volunteered with the Buddy Project, you got so much more out of it than the person you were serving,” she said.
Willkinson said as people age, they may have more trouble with mobility. Shopping for healthy food may be something LGBT seniors need help with. Socialization is another problem she’d like addressed.
“During the AIDS crisis, we banded together and got it done,” Wilkinson, adding that she sees the same thing happening with services for the elderly. “Keeping actively engaged is the best recipe.”
Emery said he believes SafeHaven’s current plan for a home for elderly LGBT people in Dallas will come to fruition. He said talks with investors are progressing as well as negotiations on acquiring property. It’s not a glamourous topic, he said, but the survey showed people in the community are concerned about it.
“No one wants to talk about this, but they’ll be thrilled it’s there,” Emery said. “We better take care of ourselves, because we have no one else to take care of us.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 6, 2015.