LGBTQ Seniors Hit by Lockdown Isolation ‘Triple Whammy’ Are Fighting Back
LGBTQ seniors are experiencing an isolation “triple whammy” under the coronavirus lockdown. Tim Teeman hears how they’re staying happy and healthy: “Think about life, not death.”
Pat and Paulette Martin, both 68, live in Harlem, New York City. They have been together four and a half years and were married in April 2018. “All is well,” said Pat in a recent Zoom call, smiling of the lesbian couple’s time in coronavirus lockdown. “Well, we haven’t murdered each other yet anyway!”
Paulette said the couple was “blessed” to have a courtyard to relax and get some air in and do some gardening. Pat said: “Isolation is the problem. Quite a few of our friends have lost partners, so they are not as blessed as we are. We can still go out. But hearing the constant sirens of ambulances wears on your nerves, it really does. You watch the Doomsday news and it becomes a bit much. That’s the main thing of feeling isolated. You feel so alone.”
The couple—who tell their lockdown stories, along with other LGBTQ seniors below—are among 5,000 New York City seniors who are members of SAGE, the country’s oldest and largest LGBTQ elder advocacy organization, founded in 1978. SAGE is “very actively engaged” with calling 3,000 of its constituents and organizing meal deliveries to those who need them.
“The two major issues facing LGBTQ elders right now are isolation and food,” said Michael Adams, SAGE’s chief executive officer. “Older LGBTQ people have been told they are a high-risk group and to shelter in place. Many can’t go shopping or get food to eat. It’s a complete vicious circle, which for many people feels inescapable at this point. We used to provide a hot meal every day at our center. Now that isn’t available, and people are understandably afraid to go out and do shopping.”
The situation is worse for those on lower incomes, he said, whose local neighborhoods perhaps don’t have a supermarket.
The organization has launched SAGE Connect, a volunteer-run telephone support system to ensure LGBTQ seniors feel connected to the outside world.
“Over and over again, what we’re hearing from them that the person calling them is the only human voice they’re hearing all week, other than what they’re hearing on TV or online,” Adams said. “This is the only human contact that many of them are having. That is a powerful and deeply troubling reality.”
“LGBTQ elders are absolutely suffering and in many ways are at the epicenter of this pandemic, and not just because of their age,” said Adams. “Those with underlying health conditions are at greater risk for COVID-19. HIV leads to compromised immune systems; smoking rates are higher with LGBTQ older adults, which can lead to compromised lungs.
“The other major issue is a lot of LGBTQ seniors are already socially isolated,” said Adams. “They don’t have anyone to rely on. Twenty-five percent of the LGBTQ elders SAGE works with don’t have any emergency contact other than SAGE. Being an older LGBTQ person, having underlying health conditions, and being isolated is a huge triple whammy.”
Eleven SAGE members have died since March 16, a SAGE spokesperson said. “Only a handful have been confirmed as COVID-19 related. The others were not able to obtain the test because of the limitations of testing.”
The organization believes that currently “10 or so” members have been told by their health-care provider that they are possibly positive and that they should self-quarantine. The organization has lost contact with some of its constituents who are not answering their phones or responding to emails. SAGE does not know if this is related to COVID-19.
“For many of those getting sick, they’re not getting tested because tests are hard to access and people are afraid to leave their homes to get tested,” said Adams. “It’s hard to know if they have COVID-19 or something else.”
Isolation is particularly acute for LGBTQ seniors, Adams said. “They are four times less likely to be parents than older Americans in general. Whereas most older Americans have adult children, they do not. They are twice as likely to grow old living alone without partners or spouses than older Americans in general. Because of discrimination and bias, LGBTQ elders are more likely to be disassociated from their families of origin than older Americans in general.”
“The traditional family structure is missing for many of our folks,” Adams said. “When folks are younger in the LGBTQ community, they deal with that by forming ‘families of choice.’ But there’s a limitation to that when you’re 75, 80, 90, and it’s harder to form such support networks.”
LGBTQ seniors may not feel safe where they reside in private or public housing, or within the residential care system. Adams said some “go back into the closet” in fear of homophobia and mistreatment by neighbors or nursing staff. “You can understand why,” said Adams. “There is a lot of discrimination still going on.”
Even in progressive urban centers like New York City, Adams said, LGBTQ seniors may go to a senior center to build new relationships but experience homophobia from other seniors. “At SAGE, they are embraced for who they are,” he added.
Ellen Ensig-Brodsky, who is 87 and lives in New York City, told The Daily Beast: “If you sit alone in a one-room apartment, it’s isolated. I’m still very active. I live in the center of New York City, down the block from MoMA, Carnegie Hall, and Broadway. I’m used to doing my own thing. This makes me feel isolated in the sense of a lack of activity.”
Ensig-Brodsky has a daughter, son, and grandchildren, whom she keeps in touch with by phone, and she is also in regular touch with members of the women’s group she belongs to at SAGE.
“I am fortunate to be speaking to people and feel closer to people perhaps than those who do not have that kind of interaction in this horrible period,” she told The Daily Beast. “If someone is not part of a family group, or a group like the one I’m in at SAGE, I would think it would be extremely lonesome.” (More of Ensig-Brodsky’s story is below.)
At Stonewall House in Brooklyn, New York City’s first LGBTQ senior living residential housing, which opened last year, 100 out of the 145 apartments are occupied, after the full moving-in process was put on hold following the outbreak of the coronavirus. That freeze will remain in place until the city gives the green light. Residents are being cared for by SAGE staff and having their meals delivered.
Being locked down has been tough for the residents, Adams said, especially those who moved to a new neighborhood to be there and are now “basically trapped indoors,” without access to their previous support networks.
SAGE has moved many of the meetings previously held in its New York HQ online. In the first couple of weeks, SAGE hosted a grab-and-go meal distribution at its Seventh Avenue base. But it was deemed too risky, health-wise, to continue, for both staff and clients. Adams has been “heartened” to see the elders supporting each other.
New York City has initiated a home delivery program for older adults, acknowledged Adams, though “several hundred SAGE constituents” were among those who had “fallen through its cracks.” Since then the organization has moved to introduce “a hodgepodge of strategies” to ensure its members are fed. The organization has an affiliates’ network in 30 other American cities doing some version of what it does in New York.
Adams said those people wanting to support LGBTQ seniors could volunteer to help with SAGE’s programs and virtual classes, or simply donate to SAGE. The organization, he said, isn’t in danger of closing but—like so many other advocacy organizations—is facing “very serious financial challenges.”
At a virtual hearing held last week on the coronavirus’ disproportionate impact on communities of color, Adams, speaking about LGBTQ seniors of color and LGBTQ seniors generally, presented eight recommendations to New York City lawmakers.
Among the recommendations was: ensuring virtual support programs received proper funding; that the city and state’s severe budget shortfalls did not affect the care and support of LGBTQ elders; that there should be ongoing financial support of all those services deemed “essential” to LGBTQ elders; that there should be funding of volunteering programs to shop and run errands for older adults; and ensuring the provision of proper internet access for older people.
An executive budget meeting is scheduled for May 21, and then the New York City Council and Mayor Bill de Blasio will likely agree on a budget in late June.
Adams told The Daily Beast one story of an older lesbian who had fractured her clavicle in the middle of the night and had no one to turn to, and was too frightened of going to the hospital. She went online and figured out how to make a sling. “It shows the isolation but also the resilience many older LGBTQ people have.”
The virus has raised other urgent questions for LGBTQ seniors: the quality, as well as quantity, of the life they have left. Kevin Burns, 71, from Albany, told The Daily Beast: “The thing at the back of your mind is ‘How many years do I have left?’ It’s complicated. In your seventies, you are hoping to do things, because in your eighties you may have to slow down. For the last couple of months, we have lost this time, and we are thinking, ‘How much more time are we going to lose?’”
LGBTQ seniors speak out on life under lockdown
Ellen Ensig-Brodsky: “There is an openness and truthfulness. We know about each other”
For Ellen Ensig-Brodsky, despite the isolation that LGBTQ seniors endure, “in some ways, LGBTQ people share connections that most straight people do not, which is extremely important, especially in periods like this. There is an openness and truthfulness. We know about each other.”
This forging of connections is rooted in history, she said. “Go back 40 years, and it was very different then than it is now. Back then you didn’t say you were gay or lesbian. You hid it, and you met in places that were hidden. My family knows now, and it’s no big deal. But years it ago it would have been. And look at geography. You might feel OK being out in New York City, but not the Midwest.”
Ensig-Brodsky does not have a partner presently, “but my family is made up of ex-partners and we are in touch.” That group of friends includes the surviving wife of a now-deceased ex-husband, whom her children encouraged her to go stay with so both women could have company. Ensig-Brodsky did so for three and a half weeks, then returned to the city.
“I prefer being in back in my own apartment,” she said. “I can dance, listen to music, watch TV. I’m happier here even though I am alone.” It helped, she said, that she was brought up as an only child, reliant on her own company. She goes for walks, does errands, and then—just as she did the day before we spoke—“didn’t get out of my pajamas and stayed in bed all day, nibbling away at all kinds of goodies.”
Ensig-Brodsky laughed. “I was a medical nutritionist, and I have not been following what I preached. I would lose my job if I saw what I was eating!”
She is looking forward to normality returning. “I need a haircut, and a lot of women feel that way. But when will those theater and concert venues be able to open?”
Other older LGBTQ people, Ensig-Brodsky said, should reach out to others by calling or email. “If you reach out, it will give you a sense of connection, and you may be helping someone else. It creates a pathway to the future and shows who’s there for you.”
Pat and Paulette Martin: “We felt it was time for us to take responsibility for ourselves”
Pat and Paulette Martin, who first met at SAGE Harlem, said LGBTQ seniors faced special issues living under lockdown.
“We were told from the beginning that coronavirus especially affected their age group,” said Paulette. “Our immune systems are weaker, the virus attacks organs and blood. So because you’re older you have this worry it’s just going to come and get you. So you isolate.
“Where the older LGBTQ community is not being understood is that we are from a generation where we were attacked for who we were, we didn’t get services or medical care because of our sexuality. You have that experience embedded long before this came along. A lot of people I know feel this.” Right now, speaking to friends face to face via Zoom is important, she said, and better than just phone calls.
Just as SAGE’s Michael Adams said, food is a huge issue, said Paulette, not just because of the difficulty of accessing it and the fear of going to a grocery store. “We give food bank details to as many people as we can. Older people have dietary restrictions, and so even if we are getting fresh food or food parcels or other items, sodium affects blood pressure, or if you have cancer you shouldn’t be eating processed food.
“Older people get very anxious about their medications too,” said Paulette. “Right now, they can’t go out and pick them up, and are relying on others to deliver them. This whole situation is taking away a lot of our independence in a lot of areas, and we are frustrated by that. Going for walks was a form of exercise before this, and now some people feel they can’t do that.”
There are, said Pat, “layers of frustration,” made more acute by being an LGBTQ senior of color, “the triple-edged sword of ‘you’re a person of color, you’re gay or lesbian, and you’re a senior.’ There’s a fear of going out. Will you be accosted? Police are accosting African Americans with masks on because they think we are up to something. Going out is a realistic fear for us.”
Both women are determined to take back, and exercise, power for themselves. They recently set up the Masculine Identified Lesbians of Color Collective, which includes African American, Latino, and a “few white women also.”
“We are coming together as a social justice group,” said Pat. “We feel for a long time we have been pushed to the side. Back in the day, clubs and bars in the 1970s and ’80s were primarily for white lesbians, and if we went we were refused entry or if we were given entry to a free club, all of a sudden there was an admission cost. If you look now, most of the LGBTQ organizations of substance who have money and get all the publicity are headed by white folks. So we came together because we felt it was time for us to take responsibility for ourselves.”
The group, comprising women of all ages, has members from New York, New Jersey, Washington, Chicago, North Carolina, South Carolina, and California.
Pat hopes the older women in the group can be role models for younger women, who may only have male relations—a father, brother, or uncle—to emulate. “A lot of them don’t know how to go to a doctor and say, ‘I’m a lesbian, sleeping with women. This is what I need.’ We need to be role models and teach these younger lesbians about self-care, how to run their own businesses, and share experiences. The buck stops here. We can no longer rely on anyone else to do it. We have to do it for ourselves.”
Paulette said this was a good time to look at how, as a couple, you can “enrich” your relationship and work on things that are not right in it, in areas like communication and finances. “It’s hard to do,” she admitted, “so set some ground rules. But it’s better to try changing something than staying stuck with old stuff.” The key, said Pat, “was looking at how you can move forward in unity, while remaining individuals.”
To get through this time, Paulette recommended other LGBTQ seniors initiate a routine. “Start every day with a prayer, whatever your spiritual belief is. Then take a shower. Don’t put on pajamas. Put on clothes. Do a skincare routine. Exercise. It’s so important. Have breakfast, coffee, or whatever your morning beverage is. Journal. Read. Turn off the TV news. Reach out to people. Take your eyes off yourself and cast them to someone else.”
Pat added that if you have ever dreamed of doing anything, like running your own business, now is the time to get those plans down on paper. “Create a bucket list. Think about life, not death.”
Kevin Burns: “The virus is cheating us of our remaining time”
Kevin Burns, 71, from Albany, New York, considers himself lucky. He has his own home, and while he lives alone, he feels very connected to a wide circle of friends and family. He has enjoyed Zoom cocktail hours, and his regular trivia quiz group has been meeting the same way. Being at home “hasn’t been a terrible strain.” It’s been good to see familiar faces, albeit virtually.
He is one of the “Vintage Pride” group of those LGBTQ people aged 55 and older belonging to Albany’s Pride Center of the Capital Region. The LGBTQ center is closed now, and Burns knows many people for whom their pot-luck lunches were their only social outlet.
He goes to the grocery store roughly once a week, shopping at special senior hours. He misses the gym and hanging out with friends. “Not having those benchmarks in a typical week to look forward to takes quite a mental adjustment. Just as everybody is finding, every Tuesday evening is now like every Friday evening. There’s no difference.”
Having spoken to friends, Burns said the psychological impact of the coronavirus on LGBTQ elders has been pronounced.
“As many years as we hope we have, they are running down, and now we are deprived of what we enjoy doing even if it’s once a week, or whatever the time frame is and whatever the activity is. The virus is cheating us of our remaining time. For me, personally, spring was a time to travel. Not being able to do that is a minor glitch compared to other people’s suffering. But as seniors, we all have things we look forward to. This current situation means we can’t do anything. How long will this go on? How long will older people be told they cannot go out, or do things?”
Burns and his friends presume this spring and summer are now a diary-date tundra. No dinners, no holidays, no Broadway trips, no Tanglewood, no Williamstown Theatre Festival, no trips to the Cape or Maine before the main holiday season begins. “I know this may sound frivolous. I know people are suffering. But these are just the things I did and am missing. I know I am lucky, and am thankful for that.”
“You can watch a DVD and get takeout, sure,” he said. “But when you’re a senior, you’re isolated anyway. Now you’re more so.”
Every senior Burns knows is being scrupulous about wearing a mask and washing hands. He laughed. “People talk about the danger of underlying issues. We all have the same underlying issue: It’s age! It’s kind of infuriating to do what we’re told and then see younger people hanging out together not wearing masks when I go out walking. I’m not making judgments, but are they going into stores, or seeing grandparents afterwards? Please think about those people. I’ve heard them complaining about wearing the masks and saying they can’t breathe in them. Well, wait till you’re 70-something!”
On the other hand, Burns said, it has been heartening to have younger people in his life reaching out to him and doing things to make sure he knew he is included in Zoom chats they are setting up.
Whatever opens up, whenever it opens up, Burns said he and his friends won’t be going anywhere until they feel assured about a vaccine or proper and accessible medical treatment. “If it takes another six months, that’s really tough, but if it means whatever is left of our lives is spent in relative good health, minus COVID, then it’s worth waiting.”
“Reach out and find other people,” Burns advised his fellow LGBTQ seniors. “I had never hosted a Zoom meeting. I didn’t know how to do it. It took a few steps, trial and error, but it paid off for me and my friends because now we can get together. It was a lot easier than I thought. Motivate yourselves to reach out.”