When James* was diagnosed with lung cancer in his 80s, he was in a pretty good place compared to many of his peers. He had a solid network of supportive friends, and he had planned well. But James, a gay WWII veteran, needed help finding LGBT-friendly healthcare providers who would supply quality, consistent care in his last days. To do that, he turned to SAGE Atlanta, the five-year-old local chapter of SAGE USA, the country’s largest and oldest organization focused on LGBT seniors.
“When the time came, we helped him identify the best hospice and home health providers for LGBT individuals, so that he could end his life in the way that he wanted to,” says Linda Ellis, executive director of the Health Initiative, which oversees SAGE Atlanta. In addition to acting as an educational and referral resource for the LGBT community—often working in partnership with AARP Georgia, the Atlanta Regional Commission, and the Georgia Division of Aging Services—SAGE provides training for service providers like senior living centers, home health aides, doctors, and hospitals.
“What we’re trying to do is make sure that the senior center in your neighborhood or the assisted living facility that you can afford is LGBT friendly and supportive,” says Ellis. “And we’ll hold their hands as well, helping them figure out how to provide those resources and train their staffs and live out that commitment.”
“There’s a huge need for it,” says Anne McSweeney, president of CEU Concepts, who has worked with SAGE to offer continuing education courses for healthcare professionals. “Many times providers don’t realize what they’re missing until they’re in a situation with an LGBT client and they’re not sure how to proceed. You can see the lightbulbs going off in the room.”
Within the LGBT community, Ellis says that support for older adults is just as critical. LGBT elders face higher rates of poverty, isolation, and loneliness than their straight peers, and may be less likely to utilize health and social services for fear of discrimination. “This generation had to live their entire lives being stigmatized; they often had to sever connections with their families in order to come out,” says Ellis. “They’re much more dependent on ‘families of choice,’ but as they age, it’s easy to get lost.”
To help maintain those “families of choice,” SAGE offers weekly get-togethers for LGBT seniors, who gather for book clubs, potlucks, and educational talks. “It’s a pretty close-knit group,” says Clyne Hodges, 67, who has been involved with SAGE Atlanta since the chapter began. When another member recently found out he had cancer, the rest of the group coordinated to offer rides and take over household repairs. “It’s kind of like a village, where people help each other. You need people around your same age that you can relate to.”
Metro Atlanta has one of the biggest LGBT communities in the country, Ellis notes, “and if you are lucky enough to connect with us, we will do everything we can to support you. The unfortunate part is that for every person that we help, there are literally hundreds of folks who are doing it by themselves.”
* Name has been changed
This article originally appeared in our September 2016 issue.