As its population ages at an accelerated rate, Sonoma County is staying ahead of the curve, investing time and resources into addressing the needs of LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex) seniors, a highly unique population.
“While LGBT seniors face the same challenges of aging as all Sonoma County seniors, they have added concerns resulting from a lifetime of discrimination and lack of recognition of same-sex relationships,” Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman, and former Council on Aging Chief Executive Officer, Shirlee Zane said regarding the recent efforts.
In February, the county announced its commitment to increase resources to area senior centers and has set in motion a competency training program for local agencies and non-profits serving senior citizens, led by the Sonoma County Area Agency on Aging (AAA).
The effort comes during a multi-year period marked by stepped-up awareness and a mandate from the state to include LGBTQI populations in long-term planning.
The Older Californians Equality and Protection Act, enacted with the passage of AB2920 in January 2007, “requires all California State programs and services for older adults specifically address the concerns of LGBT seniors.”
It further directs the California Department of Aging to provide technical assistance to area agencies on aging to serve the unique needs of LGBT seniors.
“That requirement helps us and helps a lot of AAAs justify the need to focus on this population, although I’m sure it doesn’t need additional justification,” Gary Fontenot, Human Services Section Manager, Department Adult and Aging Division said. “We recognize that it’s a minority population with a unique set of needs and has to be considered differently in some ways.”
According to the LGBT+ National Aging Research Center, an estimated 2.7 million adult Americans ages 50 and older self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, including 1.1 million ages 65 and older. By 2060 that number is expected to exceed 5 million, and those numbers reflect in Sonoma County’s population as well.
The senior population in Sonoma County is currently 25 percent and growing and according to the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, the county also has the second-highest number of LGBT couples in California.
Guiding the effort is a 21-member advisory council to the AAA that both advocates for the needs of seniors in Sonoma County and make recommendations on how to distribute Older Americans Act funding for programs and services such as congregate meals, Meals on Wheels, legal services, case management and adult day services.
“It’s all overseen by California Department of Aging,” Fontenot said. “We have to report to them directly how we’re running our AAA and they come and audit us.”
The cultural competency training began two years ago with the aid of an $11,000 grant from the LGBTQI Giving Circle Fund of the Community Foundation of Sonoma County and the Sonoma County Human Services Department Adult and Aging Division.
“It bubbled up from our staff to a great degree about the need to do better training around LGBT competency and developing resources for older adults,” Fontenot said. “We serve about 8,000 older adults through our agency and see the spectrum of that need through all the social workers that work in our agency.”
The county matched the grant funding and contracted with Nancy Flaxman, a Marin County-based consultant and trainer to provide initial training to COA, Petaluma People Services and Sonoma County Human Services staff members. The training proved to be so successful it was expanded to area senior centers, the Vintage House in Sonoma, the Sebastopol Area Senior Center and the Finley Center in Santa Rosa.
Additionally, the county enlisted the services of Gary “Buz” Hermes, a longtime LGBT rights advocate, to lead a series of eight-week sessions, Aging Together With Pride, which gave area LGBTQI seniors an opportunity to discuss the difficulties of aging after a lifetime of discrimination or hiding their true selves to avoid discrimination.
“I began studying research into longer life and applying it to LGBT, weaving it into life review and life repair,” he said. “The forum offered the opportunity for people to talk about discrimination and how families treated them.”
Hermes, a Sonoma resident, has lived a life shadowed by difficulties because of his sexual orientation.
The Napa native has been beaten, fired from jobs and even ordered to register as a sex offender by the draft board when he was just 18 years old.
He began his life of advocacy in the 1980s, starting a gay forum at the Centers for Spiritual Living and helping people with HIV/AIDS receive supportive services.
In 2009, with the help of a grant from Spectrum LGBT Center in San Rafael, Hermes co-organized three groups of “LGBT Elders” in Napa, Santa Rosa and Sonoma.
The groups provided a gathering place for elder LGBT residents and became a social center featuring tea dances, walks, lunches, holiday parties and other activities to help reduce isolation, a problem many seniors face that is even more pervasive in the LGBTQI community.
But in 2012, local advocate Gary Shepard, who led the Sonoma group, died, leaving a void that was exacerbated by the grant running its course.
“It was hard: The grant ran out and Gary died,” Hermes said. “He was an inspiration in Sonoma and the group didn’t want to see it die, so several of us volunteered to keep it going.”
Fast-forward to 2017, and Aging Together With Pride has evolved into Aging Gayfully, a Santa Rosa Junior College Older Adults Program offered at senior centers in Sonoma, Sebastopol and Santa Rosa.
“Aging Gayfully evolved from Aging Together With Pride,” Hermes said. “I want to go into the physiology of aging and staying involved, creating community and forming supportive networks.”
The LGBTQI population presents unique challenges for local service providers. Many efforts, including Meals on Wheels and AAA’s senior transportation program, are aimed at reducing isolation in seniors, a major concern particularly for residents in the more remote parts of the county.
Isolation is even more prevalent in the LGBTQI community, many in which have trust issues in general, but are even more wary of governmental service providers.
“If you got fired from your job for being gay in 1960, that’s an experience you carry with you and you carry a certain amount of distrust about accepting services, perhaps, or trusting a government official,” Fontenot said. “They are much less likely to access services because of the discrimination they have experienced over the years.”
In addition to the training, AAA hosted three receptions to invite LGBTQI seniors to share ideas about programming that would bring them to local senior centers. And discuss what can be done to improve quality of life as they age.
“They expressed a need to feel welcome,” Zane said. “We also took action by launching the LGBT information and assistance program through the Sebastopol Area Senior Center.”
What it all came down to, though, was helping LGBTQI seniors connect, both with services and with each other to reduce the chances of complete isolation as they age.
“What impressed me is there is a huge need for LGBT seniors to connect,” Hermes said. “When we were younger, we went to the bars and created our own groups, but most of us don’t have blood family nearby, so isolation is a big obstacle.”
But progress comes at a monetary price that has mostly been covered by grants from government and advocacy groups. But as the grants run their courses, programs such as Aging Gayfully show that the move to inclusivity may be taking on a momentum of its own.
“Even a relatively small grant can create a big ripple effect,” Fontanot concluded. “Aging Gayfully is actually a ripple effect from this grant.”
By David Abbott, Sonoma Seniors Today Editor
The Sonoma County Area Agency on Aging (AAA) has partnered with the Sebastopol Area Senior Center (SASC) to create a one-stop resource for LGTBQI seniors seeking information or assistance for a variety of services.
Through a grant from the LGBTQI Giving Circle Fund of the Community Foundation of Sonoma County and the Sonoma County Human Services Department Adult and Aging Division, the LGBTQI Information & Assistance Program (I&A) is a clearinghouse for information and the SASC has become something of a Petri dish for LGBTQI senior services in Sonoma County, with a mission to provide more inclusivity in its programming.
“We have had a long-standing relationship with the LGBTQI community,” Wayne Wieseler, Communications Director of the SASC said. “We’ve been flying the rainbow flag for seven or eight years. LGBTQI seniors who visit us find there is safety here and we want to continue that dynamic.”
In 2016, the SASC received its one-year grant to develop the program and Weiseler, who has been its primary architect, spent more than 40 hours researching local agencies and gathering information. He continues to maintain a comprehensive website that runs the gamut from up-to-date articles and information about current events in the LGBTQI community to information on how to pick a culturally sensitive caregiver.
The program has been so successful that it received accolades from the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging in July.
In addition to the I&A program, the SASC has modeled itself as an inclusive facility. A majority of its staff members are LGBTQI, as are several volunteers, and its programming reflects the mission. Since 2014, the SASC has hosted LGBTQI dances to offer an alternative to seniors who no longer care for the bar scene, and the facility has provided space for several LGBTQI groups and events.
“In November, we’re hosting a potluck for the Golden Guys, (a local senior social club) and we’re putting a LGBTQI game night together,” SASC Executive Director Linda Civitello said. “In the past, we also hosted the Women’s Herstory group and have several gay AA groups that use our facility.”
Civitello is tangentially part of the LGBTQI community—a self-described PFLAG: parent of lesbian and gay—as her daughter Aileen lives in Sacramento with her girlfriend Catherine and is a regular participant in the dances that take place roughly every other month.
The board of the non-profit also has a history of inclusion, as Board President Brian Ledig has embraced the LGBTQI community and encouraged diverse programming. The board has recruited LGBTQI members, such as Sebastopol realtor Gene Bonino, who recently stepped down after seven years of service.
“A lot of the credit goes to (Transportation Coordinator) Dean Brittingham. She pushed me to get involved and talked me into doing the dances,” Bonino said. “We saw a tremendous need at the dances and found that many people didn’t even know about the senior center. Brian pushed on it too, so we all saw the need at the same time.”
Bonino, along with his husband and business partner of 42 years, Will Brown, have been active participants and advocates at the SASC, volunteering at LGBTQI events and introducing the community to the valuable resource that is the senior center.
Future activities can be found at www.sebastopolseniorcenter.org, which also features the LGBTQI resource page.
“This is an incredibly at-risk group and we will continue on with our commitment to serve their needs,” Civitello said. “We encourage people to call us for more information or to answer questions they may have about resources for our LGBTQI seniors.”
In spring 2017, there were a series of welcome events to introduce the LGBTQI community to local centers’ activities and supportive programs and to get input about what would lead them to utilize the facilities.
The resulting effort has led to increased programs for LGBTQI seniors at senior centers throughout the county, including social events and senior discussion groups.
And while seniors in the populated areas of the county have access to more resources, the lower River Area, which has long been a magnet for the LGBTQI community, both as a vacation spot and a welcoming place to live, is still in the nascent stages of reaching out to its aging LGBTQI community.
To that end, the Russian River Senior Resource Center recently began a group that meets the second Saturday of the month from 12:30-2 p.m. in the Marshall House.
Stephen Zollman is facilitator for the group. He believes outreach to LGBTQI seniors is behind the times and the county and non-profits need to step up the pace.
“We pump a lot of money into this economy and would like a place that is safe,” Zollman said. “A lot of us are still suffering trauma from the way they were treated and have been traumatized from the days when we would go to prison for our sexual orientation, and some are averse to seeking help.”
He credits the work of Gary “Buz” Hermes, who has procured funding and created the model Aging Together With Pride, for the progress that has been made countywide in the past few years. But there is still a long way to go, in his opinion.
“Isolation is definitely prominent and there are few resources for people who have been historically marginalized,” Zollman said. “Depression and anxiety are exacerbated by isolation but I think people will start waking up.”
The next meeting at the Russian River Senior Resource Center is Oct. 14. Contact Zollman at (415) 218-9835 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The LGBT Senior Discussion Group at the Vintage House in Sonoma, located at 264 First St. E. Sonoma, takes place the third Friday of the month, with social time from 10-10:30 a.m. and group discussion from 10:30-noon. All ages and abilities welcome. For more information, call 996-0311 or contact Buz Hermes at 227-6935 or Janice Farrell at (415) 608-5792.
For more information about the LGBT Seniors Outreach Project, contact the Adult and Aging Division at 565-5900.
By David Abbott, Sonoma Seniors Today Editor