Graying in Color: A Haven For LGBT Seniors

As Baby Boomers age, senior advocates and the city administration are bracing themselves for an influx of retirees that is expected to increase New York City’s aging population by a third between now and 2030. Today’s seniors live longer, and they have less money and greater chronic health problems than the generation before. They are also more ethnically and culturally diverse, creating new challenges for senior services.
But even as some senior centers close during hard economic times, others have thrived when they unburdened themselves of a “one size fits all” approach. By tailoring programs to specific populations and individual tastes, some of the city’s 250-plus senior centers are finding new ways to create welcoming environments for seniors of all cultures, help seniors to stay in their longtime communities, and encourage seniors themselves to help fill the gaps caused by tight budgets and inadequate staffing.
This is the second in Voices of NY’s four-part multimedia series by Channon Hodge, Cheryl Chan and Justin Chan, exploring some of these new approaches. The first piece looked at cultural programming at two senior centers in Queens.

The March grand opening of Chelsea’s Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Elders, known as SAGE, featured a jazz band and a slew of city politicians. Elderly gay men and lesbians beamed as they took in the view through wall-high windows, and chatted over pieces of cake.

At its new center, SAGE offers creative writing workshops and acting classes. It hosts support groups for gay elders to talk about discrimination and other issues that they still face. Seniors can also access HIV counseling, participate in aging advocacy and receive advice on how to access the benefits they’re entitled to.

The ribbon-cutting at the grand opening of the SAGE center for LGBT seniors in Chelsea. (Photo by Channon Hodge)

“In a very real sense, they saved my life,” said Robert Philipson, a senior who joined one of SAGE’s bereavement groups. “When my partner died, a part of me was gone. It’s almost four years now, and I am just now beginning to feel the benefit that SAGE was to me in my coming back to life.”

Philipson is one of many seniors who are finding support at a handful of new senior centers that reject the one-size-fits all approach to senior care. Other centers funded under this city Department for the Aging program, known as Innovative Senior Centers, include community gardening programs, vegetarian and locally sourced cuisine, swimming and watercize classes, and training on everything from using Skype to bird-watching.

The city recently announced two new centers: one run by the Jewish Community Council of Greater Coney Island that offers a Chinese opera program and an international choral group performing songs in various languages, as well as Tai chi, dancercise, yoga and animal therapy; and one run by Catholic Charities Neighborhood Services that offers meditation classes and farm-fresh produce through community-supported agriculture programs.

To attract seniors these days, centers have to be as creative and diverse as their elderly clientele, explained the Department for the Aging’s Commissioner, Lilliam Barrios-Paoli.

“We’d been looking at how can we transform the centers as they exist into the centers of the future to serve the aging population that is growing and different and changing,” she said. “I’m a different person at my age than my grandmother was at my age, so how do we change the programming from what it’s been in the last 40 years?”

As the Baby Boom generation ages, the idea is to begin to reach out to a new kind of senior, said Bobbie Sackman, Director of Public Policy at the Council of Senior Centers and Services. Sackman first proposed the new centers. They were adopted as a key part of Mayor Bloomberg’s Age-Friendly NYC, a wide-reaching initiative that includes placing artists in residence at centers and providing seniors with health and wellness programs and technology courses targeted to their particular needs and demographics.

“It’s going to be sort of an experiment of how we can bring the senior centers into the 21st century,” Sackman explained. “We’re the first city to do this.”

A Haven for the Visually Impaired

During a raffle in the auditorium at Visions Selis Manor in Chelsea, a party-like atmosphere prevailed, with a chatty crowd of 100 seniors listening for their numbers, hoping to win prizes that included Access-A-Ride tickets and snack bar gift certificates.

Janet Seth, a 64-year-old former projectionist, sat calmly at her table with a cup of coffee gripped firmly in her hands. A close friend sitting beside her was, according to Seth, nearly a century old. Though decades apart in age, the two share a common trait that brings them to Visions week after week.

Both women – and everyone else at Visions – are blind or visually impaired.

“They have support groups which are really fantastic,” Seth said. “A lot of the people in the group are people who have been blind for a long time, who can kind of give you advice on how to deal with various problems related to mobility, and dealing with family and dealing with just the outside world.”

Visions Selis Manor, located in a housing development, has operated for eight decades – and its outdated decor attests to that fact. But its appearance belies the wide range of new services and programs it offers, made possible by city grants through the innovative senior centers program totaling around $638,000, according to Betsy Fabricant, the center’s senior administrator.

Fabricant pointed out a computer lab with Mac and PC computers, outfitted to magnify their displays and speak loudly. Seniors can also participate in chair yoga, ceramics, bowling and photography.

“We serve mostly a low-income and also ethnically diverse population,” Fabricant said. “Initially, we had about maybe 150 people that were seniors that immediately signed up when they heard we were offering the meals, but we’ve been adding people on a weekly basis.”

Besides hot meals and information on health care, Medicaid, wellness and home care, the innovative centers offer guidance and support groups on the specific challenges that a particular population – vision-impaired, for example, or gay – might face.

SAGE, like many senior centers, offers a computer lab for seniors to use. (Photo by Channon Hodge)

After the program was announced in August 2009, 19 organizations that serve seniors submitted proposals for additional funding to the mayor and the Office of Management and Budget. The city chose eight existing nonprofits, who were required to submit program narratives that were evaluated based on criteria that included the quality of the health and wellness programming they proposed and their use of technology.

Jeanette Reed, Deputy Director of Public Affairs at the Department of Aging, explained that the additional funding has allowed the organizations to carry out health programs based on extensive research, offer expanded hours, provide additional benefits and entitlements counseling and assistance, and meet higher standards than “neighborhood” senior centers. Some of the programs are brand new and experimental, and will serve as test programs for the department to learn about the best approaches to elderly care. Those considered successful may be replicated in other centers.

Overcoming Obstacles

Although Lenox Hill Neighborhood House’s senior center in the Upper East Side of Manhattan does not tailor its programs to a particular group its recently renovated facilities and new curriculum reveal a glimpse of its plans for a future expansion. In addition to providing watercise, zumba and computer classes, it invites students from Columbia University to hold one-on-one technology workshops with the seniors.

Still, challenges remain. Some seniors, for instance, have not yet fully embraced the atmosphere at the innovative senior centers. Hyo In Park, Assistant Director of Administration at Lenox Hill, said that it has been difficult for some seniors to remember faces when new members join her staff.

“Change is always difficult,” added Karisa Werdon, the center’s Assistant Director of Real Arts and Education. “A lot of people are trying to adapt to the new center.”

Securing funding to start and maintain new programs is another issue. The Department for the Aging provides grants of up to $500,000, but some of these nonprofits rely on outside grants as well. Most programs, including Visions, operate with only four or five full-time staff members and rely heavily on students and volunteers. More centers are planned for the future, but program directors admit that they have had to work with tight deadlines and to improvise with existing resources.

“It’s expensive to do this stuff,” Fabricant said. “You’re talking about food and staff, and that’s not even dealing with the programs, supplies or any of the little items that you might need.”

With the Boomer generation aging and increasingly seeking out free city programs, Commissioner Barrios-Paoli said pilot programs like SAGE are being watched carefully to gauge their success.

“If it works really well, and I’m sure it will, then we can make the argument for having more,” she said. “Hopefully one in every borough, hopefully more innovative centers – which is essentially what we need.”

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