NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Life has become more accepting for marginalized seniors in the county, at a time when the elder population is on the rise.
The New Hanover County Senior Center is the only type of its kind in a four-county region — Pender, New Hanover, Brunswick and Columbus — to now be accredited by SAGE, an advocacy organization for LGBTQ+ seniors.
Founded in 1978, SAGE aims to be more inclusive of LGBTQ+ elders and advocate for resources to support them as they age. More than 90% of the 36-employee NHC Senior Center staff completed the SAGECare training, a cultural competency program and introduction to LGBTQ+ vocabulary.
Since the county receives federal funding from the Administration on Aging, the training was for free. Once 50% of employees take the one-hour course, a location can be accredited.
Ed Adams is the volunteer director of the elderly social group Out Wilmington LGBTQ+ Seniors (OWLS) — one of two local SAGE chapters in the state — and has been collaborating with the senior center on creating more inclusive programming and getting more LGBTQ+ seniors through the doors.
According to the National Resource Center on LGBTQ+ Aging, LGBTQ+ elders are less likely than heterosexual peers to access aging services and providers, such as senior centers, due to perceived “harassment.” The resource center encourages care providers to be more open about discussing sexual orientation to ensure the needs of LGBTQ+ people are considered.
There was no specific incident or complaint that led to the senior center seeking the training. It was merely a way to reach another population and offer services to suit their needs; it also was addressed in New Hanover County’s five-year master aging plan, released in 2021.
The plan identified the need to offer more diverse and accessible opportunities for older adults to be engaged in the community. The plan also spurred the creation of a community engagement coordinator to increase outreach; Emily Ford was hired at the end of September 2022 to fill the role.
Adams and other OWLS made up committees providing input for the five-year plan, in order “to have a voice.”
“And by golly, it’s worked,” Adams said.
New Hanover County’s Senior Resource Center, which provides services for ages 55 and up, was accredited by Sage USA in June during Pride Month. There are 27 SAGECare credentialed locations in the state.
“Once they see the training happening and the center looks like us and people there are like us, it becomes more inclusive,” Adams said.
Ford’s position was created specifically to reach out to historically marginalized populations and ensure equitable access to all the center’s resources. She has been collaborating with OWLS, by attending weekly walks with the population to better address their needs.
“When looking at the LGBTQ population as a whole, considering lived experience, there is a fear there is going to be discrimination in care settings,” Ford said. “[J]ust a fear for LGBTQ older adults in general and experiences with this age demographic as a whole.”
SAGE estimates nine out of 10 LGBTQ+ seniors would say it’s the number one concern when growing older, and for Adams, especially when in a Southern city.
“The last thing they want to do in their elder lives is to have to go back into a closet for feeling afraid,” Adams said.
He used his personal life as an example. Adams and his partner for 31 years, Jeff Mills, both over 60, live with Mills’ 103-year-old mother. They have faced prejudice up close and personal as caretakers.
When the two attempted to find assisted living for her, Adams said the facility asked the personal status of his and Mills’ relationship. The two are not married for a number of personal reasons.
“Checking in at a front desk, they asked, ‘Oh is that your mother?’ No, it’s my mother-in-law,” Adams recalled. “Then asking, ‘Oh are you guys married?’ Just questions, weird stuff that wouldn’t ordinarily come up.”
He said working with an agency that was trained in SAGECare — LGBTQ+ elder support — would make them “feel more comfortable.”
SAGECare reports 88% of LGBTQ older adults would agree, according to a nationwide survey; they would prioritize a facility where they know staff was knowledgeable about the needs of LGBTQ patients and their families.
“She is like a shining example and gem about how important SAGECare is to a community,” Adams said. “It’s not about Jeff and I. It’s about Jeff and I trying to help our mother and the trials and tribulations when we try to find assisted living for her.”
Senior Resource Center director Amber Smith said having her staff trained in cultural competency ensures they ask better questions to identify any service gaps and be a safe place to seek information.
In collaboration with the OWLS to gather feedback and input, the senior center started hosting LGBTQ+ 101 listening sessions. The programs are open to anyone, even if they do not identify as LGBTQ+ but are allies.
Ford said a handful of people have attended each of the three sessions so far, the first hosted in March.
“To know people in New Hanover County are working in our regard to make establishments more friendly, compassionate, supportive of us growing old and us in general, is heartwarming,” Adams said.
The training sought by the senior center is intended to make employees more aware of the varied situations that may arise when discussing someone’s “family.”
Smith said it’s important when supporting the older generation to know who they consider their support systems.
“We’ve lived a life worried about discrimination but being an elder and in all aspects — going to the senior center or assisted living or being an LGBTQ in your 40s and 50s caring for adult parents — and then going to a facility not being aware or compassionate, respectful in relation to being LGBTQ,” Adams said. “Discrimination is real.”
The big takeaway for Ford was to not make assumptions.
“When you’re talking to a woman, it’s important to not assume her partner is a husband,” she gave as an example. “And to mirror their language. If they’re using ‘partner,’ you want to also use ‘partner.’”
Healthcare for the LGBTQ+ community is even more important, according to both Ford and Adams. LGBTQ+ elders are four times less likely to have children and twice as likely to live alone. Therefore, senior center staff can more effectively guide visitors to the proper resources if they know someone’s personal situation.
It’s also estimated the number of adults 60 years old and over in New Hanover County is going to increase by 54% by 2036, based on Census data; already there are more seniors than children ages 17 and younger in the county.
However, the U.S. Census does not track sexual orientation or gender identity, and the senior center also did not have stats as to how much of its membership identified as LGBTQ+.
Adams has seen an increased impact OWLS has made over the last two years. He said its current email list of active participants is up to 300 members and events, such as OWLS Nights Out, have jumped from about 20 people to nearly 60. Weekly Wednesday Walks, which used to include a dozen participants, are 30 or 40 on any given day.
The walks are often hosted at the senior center, to expose more individuals to information they may not have access to elsewhere, as well as welcoming programs and activities.
“The goal is what can we do in New Hanover County and the surrounding area to make aging for an LGBTQ person, better for us — make our lives more vibrant and effective,” Adams said.
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