Wednesday, May 4, 2011

When Silence is Not Golden

Santa Rosa, CA—Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) seniors face many of the same issues as their aging heterosexual neighbors, but they may face additional challenges that are explored in a moving documentary Gen Silent that has been shown recently at the Sonoma County Human Services Department Adult & Aging Division and the Area Agency on the Aging. Public showings will be held in the next several months around Sonoma.

Gen Silent follows six LGBT seniors for a year to put a face on what experts in the film call an epidemic: LGBT seniors so afraid of discrimination in long-term health care or bullying by other seniors that they go back into the closet.

“Gen Silent is a very important documentary, and we’re honored to be able to show it in Sonoma County,” says Diane Kaljian, Director of Sonoma County’s Division of Adult & Aging Services, whose agency sponsored the showings. “It’s important for those of us that work with older people and people with disabilities to be inclusive to everyone, including Latino, Black, Asian, or LGBT elders. This film highlights the concerns LGBT seniors and their caregivers may have about isolation and access to supportive services that assist people through aging and disability.”

Gary Shepard, the Sonoma Project coordinator for Spectrum LGBT Center, says that that in spite of Sonoma County’s “gay-friendly” reputation, Sonoma LGBT seniors still face challenges. “It some ways it’s better than other areas, but it’s not a panacea. Even in San Francisco, there are seniors that are not out of the closet.” Shepard says that the some of the problems are not geographical as much as generational.  “We were the generation that was in the closet, or at least partially in the closet. We became very adept at stepping through the minefield. I know a couple who posed as uncle and nephew, right up until the moment the ‘uncle’s’ ashes were handed to the ‘nephew’. He’s grieving for his partner, but the world doesn’t know it. Coming out for my generation isn’t an event, it is a process that lasts right up to death.  Our close friends may know who we are, but we may still talk in neutral pronouns around caregivers, neighbors, or strangers.”

 According to Gen Silent filmmaker Stu Maddux, the vulnerability associated with needing long term health care can lead even out-of-the-closet seniors to retreat into silence. “Many elders not just afraid but dangerously isolated,” said Maddux. “Many of our greatest generation are dying prematurely because they don’t ask for help and have too few people in their lives to keep an eye on them.”                                            

“LGBT seniors are more likely to be alone,” Shepard says. “This generation is more likely to be childless and alienated from their families of origin. And the fear of letting people know who you are can layer a sense of isolation and depression on top of that loneliness.”  Shepard leads senior LGBT discussion groups in Sonoma and Santa Rosa to help combat that sense of isolation. 

“Isolation is a profound problem for seniors,” agrees Kaljian. “It’s very important for all seniors to find a way to stay connected, and that is sometimes difficult for a generation that is not accustomed answering personal questions or asking for help.” Kaljian says that caregivers and people who work with seniors can ease LGBT seniors’ discomfort by allowing them opportunities to define their relationships in their own way. “Rather than asking, ‘may I contact your husband or a son or daughter?’, for example, you can say ‘who would you like me to contact?’” she explains.  “Don’t assume,” adds Shepard. “People assume that you come out once. But every time someone asks a LGBT senior ‘Do you have grandkids?’ or asks if your wife will be joining you, you have a ten-second window to decide to come out again to this person.” 

The issues that Gen Silent addresses can be disturbing, portraying people who are already dealing with aging, illness, and loneliness, dealing with the added fear of discrimination or abuse. But Shepard says that Lawrence, one of the men featured in the documentary tells a very positive story. “His decision to reclaim his life is something I’d like to see more people feel free to do. Not everyone can do it. Not everyone will do it. And maybe it’s not that different for heterosexual seniors, maybe as you get older you just need to sweep away the debris and reclaim your life. But his story is a powerful one.”  

For more information on Gen Silent, see:
For more information on Spectrum’s Senior LGBT discussion groups, see: or call 707-583-2330.

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