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'Openhouse' takes root by the Bay.

Marcy Adelman, Ph.D., founded Rainbow Adult Community Housing back in 1998 as a community group dedicated to serving older GLBT people in the San Francisco Bay Area. Changing its name to "openhouse" in 2004, the project has morphed into a nonprofit organization whose central focus is finding and providing housing for this population. The group's most ambitious project to date is the imminent construction of an eighty-unit building for GLBT seniors.

A longtime activist for GLBT senior issues, Adelman is the editor of Lesbian Passages: True Stories Told by Women over 40 (1996), and of Midlife Lesbian Relationships: Friends, Lovers, Children, and Parents (2000). This interview was conducted last November via a combination of tape-recorded phone conversations and e-mail exchanges.

Gay & Lesbian Review: Let me ask you to talk about open-house, which you founded several years ago.

Marcy Adelman: I founded openhouse with my late partner, Jeanette Gurevitch, in 1998 to address the needs of aging GLBT people in the San Francisco Bay area, because we are not integrated into the city's senior care system. Because of discrimination, our seniors have to go back into the closet to access senior housing and services, or they simply do not access these services at all. Even though our seniors are seventeen percent of San Francisco's senior population--approximately 25,000 GLBT seniors--we are substantially underrepresented. Because they are isolated and not accessing available senior services and housing resources, they are at greater risk for poor health, increased disability, and a shorter life span.

By 2010, about 29 percent of all San Franciscans will be over 55 years of age. There's a tidal wave of GLBT baby boomers about to be old, and the city is not prepared to help us. Most Bay Area senior facilities are receptive to our issues but do not provide sensitive services and housing. GLBT seniors, both locally here in San Francisco and nationally, are at great risk for poor health and quality of life issues because the long-term care system in this country is neither welcoming nor responsive to our needs.

But openhouse, a unique nonprofit community-based model, will change all that. We are mobilizing our community to change the face of aging both here in San Francisco and across the country. Openhouse is committed to providing mixed income, multicultural senior housing with services for both residents of the openhouse housing and for those who choose to remain in their own homes. Openhouse will offer referrals to GLBT-affirming in-home services and opportunities for education and social activities.

Openhouse plans to build an eighty-unit building with comprehensive senior services on the site of the former University of California campus in Hayes Valley. The Hayes Valley site at 55 Laguna Street is just one block from the LGBT Community Center. It's part of a larger plan for 400 market-rate rental housing units for people of all ages and orientations, so it's well-integrated into the larger community. The Hayes Valley complex will include retail shops, a restaurant, fitness, and business center, a community garden, and a beautiful new park. The location is ideal because it's between the Castro and the San Francisco Civic Center area which includes the symphony, opera, and library. It is a flat walking neighborhood, unusual for San Francisco. This will be our flagship site from which we can bring senior services to non-openhouse residents. Most people prefer to remain in their own homes and in their communities as they age. Fifty-five Laguna will be a destination that's safe and secure for residents and at the same time inviting to members of the broader GLBT senior community for services, activities, and social engagement.

G & LR: Can you elaborate on these other services that open-house will provide?

MA: We work closely with organizations that want to provide services to the GLBT community, such as adult day care, health promotion, in-home services, care management, personal assistance, and so on. Openhouse provides sensitivity training programs for senior service providers and senior housing managers. We are making sure that senior services are there for the community before we even open our doors. Later this year we'll be providing a GLBT liaison at two neighborhood senior centers in San Francisco to increase outreach and access to services. This program is the next step in our sensitivity training program. It will increase accessibility to mainstream support services that already exist. Openhouse also conducts resource training events in the community for baby boomers and seniors. Information is provided about wills, referrals to GLBT-sensitive brokers and lawyers, long term care insurance, medical power of attorney, domestic partnership, and same-sex marriage. Although much has changed, much has stayed the same. While we can create different housing options, we need to address the systemic heterosexism and discrimination in senior services that exist throughout this country. We see openhouse as a model that other urban GLBT communities will be able to emulate.

G & LR: What were your reasons for founding the project?

MA: I actually became interested in aging as far back as the 1970's and started to write about and research the topic back then. But the AIDS epidemic required all our resources in the early 80's, and rightly so. With a generation of gay men dying from AIDS, our community was under siege. It would take another decade before we were ready to focus on ageism and later life. In 1986, I edited a book called Long Time Passing: Lives of Older Lesbians, a collection of stories told by old lesbians in their own voice. This book was a personal journey for me. I wanted to make the lives of old lesbians visible. I wanted to understand where I came from and where I was going. But in the course of doing the book, all my assumptions about old age were called into question. I met women like Barbara McDonald, Babba Copper, and Shevy Healy, visionaries and activists who were challenging negative stereotypes about aging. I made so many beautiful friendships with old lesbians and gay men. By then so many friends were being forced out of San Francisco and their loving communities because of the high cost of housing or because of health-related issues that made it to difficult to remain in their own homes or apartments. I decided the time had come to do something about it.

G & LR: Do you see the baby boom generation as all that different from previous generations of GLBT seniors?

MA: The generation that's now old lived their lives in a hostile environment in which there was no support for being gay. For most, the closet of the pre-Stonewall era was a necessary adaptation in a world where you could lose your children, your family, and your career if you were outed as gay. Whether in or out of the closet, this pioneering generation showed amazing courage to live loving and meaningful gay lives. The generation that's now old or gone are the founders of the modern gay movement. The late Harry Hay organized the Mattachine Society in 1950 and Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon formed the Daughters of Bilitis in 1955. We are where we are today because of their brave work. In contrast, many of us in the baby boom generation have spent most of our lives being out. We think of ourselves in a radically different way; our sexual orientation is a fundamental and positive part of our identity. The differences between us are generational, not developmental.

The baby boom generation has brought a paradigm shift in how we think about and prepare for our later years. As we take care of our parents and wonder who will take care of us when we're old, the denial of our own aging starts to break down, and the negative stereotypes of aging are replaced by the need to prepare for longevity in later life and the wish to maintain a healthy, vital, and positive old age. Having created out GLBT communities of various kinds in their younger years, Boomers are looking for ways to carry the movement forward in their later years, whether it means remaining where they live now or moving to a senior community where they'll find acceptance and new friends.

G & LR: The second alternative brings us to the idea of the "intentional community"--a pattern of residence in which like-minded people come together to share their interests and lives. Do you see openhouse as an example of such a community?

MA: Yes, this is definitely the case, and we are very much aware of the various models of such communities that are being pursued around the country. There are essentially four such models. First, there are naturally occurring retirement communities where neighbors join together to assist each other. An example of a naturally occurring senior community for lesbians would be the Red Dot Girls in the Seattle suburbs. Second, there is cluster housing, where a group of friends join together to buy land and build separate housing or buy or rent an apartment building. Third, there are planned, for-profit developments that target the lesbian and/or gay senior population. These are typically upscale, closed or gated communities that provide amenities and services. Examples would be Rainbow Vision in Santa Fe and Fountaingrove in Santa Rosa, California. And fourth, there are nonprofit developments such as Gay and Lesbian Elder Housing in Los Angeles for low-income seniors, Stonewall Communities in Boston, and openhouse, which is a mixed-income GLBT project with comprehensive services for residents and nonresidents who wish to remain in their homes and apartments as they age.

G & LR: Are you in contact with the people involved in the other projects around the country that you mentioned?

MA: Yes, very much so. We see these various models as alternative approaches each of which has a role to play for different parts of our community. We often share information and enjoy each other's success. Our community wants and deserves housing options.

G & LR: What are some of the special issues faced by GLBT people as they age?

MA: In 2003, openhouse completed a major study of 1,300 GLBT adults in the Bay Area. This survey shattered the myth of gay and lesbian affluence. The average retirement income of lesbians and gay men is the same as that of their heterosexual peers. But our financial resources are further compromised by federal laws that do no prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and that deny benefits that are a resource to heterosexuals. Same-sex couples are treated unequally by the Social Security and Medicaid systems and in the taxation of pensions and 401(k) plans. This costs GLBT seniors hundreds of millions of dollars each year in lost benefits.

The openhouse survey also found that lesbian and gay seniors are more likely to be childless, single, and to live alone than are heterosexuals. In the survey, 71 percent of gay men and lesbians over the age of fifty had no children, compared to ninety percent of heterosexual seniors who have children. Fully 75 percent of gay men over the fifty were without a partner, while some eighty percent of heterosexual men are known (from Census research) to be married. The same proportion of gay men and lesbians over 65 lived alone, a much higher figure than the corresponding one for heterosexual men and women.

Now we know that traditionally, next to spouses, children are the primary caregivers of elderly parents. If we have neither, then we are at greater risk of poverty and simultaneously less likely to have access to services and care. Clearly, our community needs to build an infrastructure to take care of all of us as we age.

G & LR: Do you see any obstacles for openhouse and similar projects as they become a more widespread phenomenon?

MA: Most existing senior resources are not welcoming environments for GLBT seniors. Discrimination prevents these seniors from comfortably using existing services. Transgender and HIV-positive seniors are especially vulnerable to discrimination. The progress we're making in providing housing options for our seniors is just the beginning. The GLBT Public Forum at the 2005 White House Conference on Aging listed three priority issues: first, economic security and opportunities for access and fairness under the law for pensions, public benefits, and employment opportunities; second, quality health care and long-term care costs, where discrimination and institutional heterosexism prevent equity in service delivery; and third, affordable housing and safety. Our elders need more safe choices in senior housing.

Housing is just one part of the long-term care system. We need to see more progress all along the long-term care continuum--housing, health promotion, care management, nutritional services, home health services, in-home services, personal assistance, home modification, social services, HIV over 50 supports, financial management, transportation, adult day care, dementia care, medication management, clinic services, and hospice. Our community needs to mobilize to meet the health needs of all our seniors. The work has only just begun.

RELATED ARTICLE: Stonewall Communities Breaking Ground in Boston

Last March, Stonewall Communities, Inc., announced that they had completed a major step in their plan to build the nation's first urban residential condominium community targeted to older (over 55) gay men and lesbians. Stonewall, in partnership with Abbott Real Estate Development, had purchased land near Boston's Kenmore Square to create what they called "a new paradigm for inclusive community living." Following is an excerpt from this announcement.

The development, known as "Stonewall at Audubon Circle," will offer home ownership opportunities never before available to older gay men and lesbians in an urban environment. The building will offer over fifty condominium-style residences with parking and other amenities, including around fifteen percent of the units deemed "affordable" in accordance with Boston's housing policies.

Stonewall at Audubon Circle is a groundbreaking concept for gay and lesbian urban living. Boston will serve as a model for inclusive living and neighborhood revitalization. Gay and lesbian adults, along with their friends, will find a supportive community that will enable them to maintain a vigorous urban lifestyle. The concept combines basic needs--specifically new housing that will address a growing need in the City of Boston for new units, while also providing a new model for community living.

"Stonewall Communities has been working to create a residential community in Boston for older members of the GLBT community for many years and we have finally taken the first big step to making it a reality. Stonewall at Audubon Circle will become a model for other urban settings, and we are very excited that we already have 25 men and women who have made reservations to purchase condos. These new homeowners will become active participants in the Fen-way/Audubon Circle neighborhood and the Boston GLBT community," said David Aronstein, founder of Stonewall Communities. "Our community has waited for a long time for such an inclusive community that will respond to the needs of seniors who have been so underserved in the past."

Stonewall Communities, Inc. is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit corporation. The mission is to better understand and advocate for the needs of older lesbians, gay men, and their friends. This will done by creating a range of options and developing residential environments that will combine quality housing with a supportive inclusive and diverse community.

Each condominium will be a complete home with high-quality finishes and amenities, but also designed to be accessible to people with physical limitations and adaptable as conditions change in their lives. The property will also include common amenities and provision of services to enhance the quality of life. This project will creatively integrate innovative design, partnerships with established community institutions, and encouragement of active participation in community and neighborhood life. Residential services, amenities, and programs will include underground parking, an inviting lobby with concierge, a common dining room and kitchen with prepared meals offered, a communal library/den, a fitness and wellness center, cleaning services, and personal care services. Existing community institutions and groups will be available to support the needs of the residents.

But that is just the first step toward building a community with the capacity to take care of seniors based on a commitment to the proposition that no one should have to face his or her old age alone in the future. Starting in 2007, Stonewall Communities Lifelong Learning Center, in conjunction with Wheelock College, will begin offering ongoing study groups and workshop series by and for GLBT people over fifty who have a passion for learning. This first-in-the-nation program will provide opportunities to expand social support networks for older gay people in ways that have never been possible before.
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Title Annotation:Marcy Adelman
Author:Adelman, Marcy
Publication:The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2007
Words:2763
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