Coronavirus leaves LGBTQ seniors particularly vulnerable to isolation

Elizabeth Cooney Care Network CEO Elizabeth Weglein (Photo courtesy of Jim Mathias)

During the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis, D.C.’s Salon Roi remained open while other shops shut down due to the epidemic. But coronavirus has forced former owner Roi Barnard to put down his shears to protect himself and his community.

“My goal is to take very good care of others, such as my clients at Salon Roi who are older,” the 82-year-old gay stylist told the Washington Blade. “We are holding each other up and I am being as careful for them as they are for me.”

According to the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention, coronavirus is a respiratory illness first
identified in a December outbreak in Wuhan, China. It spreads easily from
person to person through small droplets expelled during coughs or sneezes.

The World Health
Organization as of deadline reported more than 167,000 confirmed cases globally
with a death toll of more than 6,600. Nearly 3,500 of those cases are in the
U.S. with 68 deaths reported so far. The virus has hit Washington state the
hardest with 41 deaths, most occurring at the Life Care Center nursing home in

CDC guidance
regarding high-risk populations states, “Older people with severe chronic
conditions should take special precautions because they are at higher risk of
developing serious COVID-19 illness.”

LGBTQ elders, like Barnard and many others of the “Stonewall Generation,” survived decades of historic repression, trauma and epidemic; however, this new threat is stalking them at a far more vulnerable time in their lives.

“It’s the history of discrimination, it’s the history of unemployment — all of this has impacted how they age,” David Vincent, chief program officer for SAGE, an LGBTQ senior advocacy and services organization, told the Blade. “They often don’t have a community that will take care of them.”

Last December, Stonewall House, New York’s first LGBTQ-friendly affordable senior housing, opened to fill the growing needs of this aging generation. This complex follows the model of Philadelphia’s LGBTQ-friendly John C. Anderson Apartments and others like it being established around the country.

Vincent pointed out
the lingering economic impact LGBTQ seniors continue to live with as a result
of being fired for being gay and other discriminatory policies such as the
military’s former “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the continued ban on open
transgender service.

Additionally, many
faced other forms of harassment, such as arrests and legal restrictions against
marrying or adopting children. The result is they are now socially and
economically as well as medically vulnerable in their senior years.

These historical
realities, coupled with the loss of peers during the AIDS crisis, means LGBTQ
seniors are particularly vulnerable to isolation and loneliness. This is one
factor not mentioned in the open letter to U.S. public health officials
released on March 11 by more than 100 LGBTQ-affirming organizations when
assessing the increased risk LGBTQ individuals, particularly seniors, face when
confronting the coronavirus.

“These are very
vulnerable, very low income individuals,” Vincent said. “They come to us not
only for socialization … they come to us for a meal.”

And this can be a
problem in cities with infrastructures stressed by a global crisis.

With 950 reported cases in New York as of deadline, the state has taken extreme measures, like much of the country, including the closure of LGBTQ community centers that serve as a medical, nutritional and emotional lifeline to many LGBTQ seniors without other support.

“In New York City, we
run five senior centers,” said SAGE Senior Communications Director Christina Da
Costa. “Some of these folks not only depend on the centers for social
programming, but also for nutritional purposes. For some, this is the one meal
a day they receive.”

“When we closed our
state centers, we did so with a heavy heart,” Vincent added. “We knew it would
impact the social system for our seniors.”

But he felt the
seriousness of the current situation left them with little choice.

“We knew it was
detrimental to their health to be in such a large public setting,” he

Similarly, in Maryland; Elizabeth Weglein, chief executive officer of the Elizabeth Cooney Care Network which specializes in LGBTQ-friendly senior services, is facing tough choices during this current crisis.

“Social isolation was
already the highest risk for seniors, even surpassing heart disease and
cancer,” Weglein said. “This forced isolationism is causing unprecedented

Weglein told of a
senior who called her network to say he had all of the coronavirus symptoms,
but refused any medical care.

“After working with him, we realized he was just extremely fearful of having anyone with him and felt all alone at the same time,” she explained. “Ultimately, he is stable and well, but his mental health well-being is unbalanced and stressed due to the current heightened COVID-19 environment.”

Mark Segal, an
over-65 gay man in Philadelphia who is fortunate to have his husband with him
during this period of social restriction for seniors, was surprised when a
medical provider discriminated against him in a way that is similar to what gay
men faced during the AIDS crisis.

“Fear breeds
discrimination,” he said, upset by a doctor’s office staff who refused to treat
him, or anyone else 65 and over because of what they understood to be CDC
guidelines, “but they were wrong.”

Segal said he was
scheduled to have a nonemergency outpatient procedure to relieve two herniated
disks and “a sciatic nerve issue” on Monday.

He told the Blade the
doctor called him the night before to confirm his appointment. But as a sign of
quickly changing situations due to the virus, the doctor’s office called him on
Monday morning and abruptly cancelled the procedure.

 “They told me they weren’t treating anyone
over 65,” he said, still surprised. “I asked what about someone who was 64 and
in bad health. They said that person would be treated, but not someone who was
65 and in good health … This is age discrimination.”

Part of Segal’s hurt arose from memories about doctors decades ago turning patients away because they were gay and assumed to have HIV or AIDS,

“Now, they turn me away because I’m old,” said Segal.

Even though many of
the support systems LGBTQ seniors like Segal and others turn to are closed,
Vincent says there are ways the younger LGBTQ community can help.

“Reach out to an LGBT
elder and see if they are doing okay,” Vincent said. “Can you pick something up
at the store for them? They are not supposed to leave home for the next six to
eight weeks. Maybe pick up their medication at the pharmacy and drop it off at
someone’s doorstep. Think local community. Maybe even watch ‘Ellen’ with
someone over the phone. That’s a nice way to stay connected.”

He also recommends
for seniors to check in with their friends to make sure they are okay, again
even if it is by phone or social media during this crisis. This is what Segal
is doing.

“I have been in my house since last Thursday with my husband and we both are symptom free,” he said, though he realizes others his age or older aren’t so fortunate. “I start everyday at 2 p.m. to do a Facebook Live show. I don’t want anyone to feel like a caged animal. If you feel lonely or upset, give me a call. I’m here.”

Segal explained that
for him communication was a way to help people feel loved and connected during
this vulnerable time. Vincent agreed.

“Everyone is going to get a phone call in the next couple of days [from our center],” he said. “People can still reach out to us. We’re still working, we’re just working from home. We can make these connections happen.”

Both Vincent and
Segal pointed out LGBTQ seniors were fortunate that many of these alternate
connections and communities were forged from lessons learned at the height of
the AIDS crisis.

“This is what being a
community is all about,” Segal said, his voice sounding noticeably stronger.
“We learned how to do that extremely well during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. We
learned how to use those practices and are putting them to use once again now.”

The practices he
mentioned were for LGBTQ seniors to know the facts about the disease, know
their status, do the protective measures, help keep each other safe and most importantly,
stay connected.

“There will be a time
that this, too, will be in the rear view mirror,” Segal said confidently. “And
just like AIDS, we learn from it.”

Published at Tue, 17 Mar 2020 23:23:00 +0000