First published in the San Francisco Bay Times
As a clinical social worker working in the LGBT senior community, I have heard my share of ageist comments. The most common reply I hear when I tell peers (I’m 38) what I do for work is, “Aw, how cute.” (Insert eye roll here.) Though dubbing older adults “cute” implies endearment, it’s more than irksome, and requires more than an eye roll to address. In reality, the community members I work with are astute, insightful, seasoned and fierce. Cute just doesn’t cut it.
While seniors in our community live with significant health disparities when compared to their straight counterparts, differences within the cohort cannot be overstated. Plainly, if you’ve seen one LGBT senior, you’ve seen one LGBT senior. “Senior” itself is a contested and slippery term, used to describe people in a vast age range encompassing up to three generations. As one woman I work with said, “I’m seventy-one, poor, old, black, and I’m the lesbian daughter of a Baptist minister. When younger people see me, they probably see ‘a sweet old lady,’ not the radical boomer dyke I am—even if I am kind of sweet.”
And while “how sweet,” may sound innocuous, as Ashton Applewhite notes in This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, “‘Elderspeak’—the belittling ‘sweeties’ and ‘dearies’ that people use to address older people—does more than rankle. It reinforces stereotypes of incapacity and incompetence.”
In my work at Openhouse, I lead trainings with clinicians and senior service providers on LGBT aging issues and ageism. Most trainees remark that, while they have had trainings on oppression based on sexual orientation, race, and gender, they have never had any formal training dealing with ageism. I am continually struck by this omission, but maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.
For most of us who are not-yet-old, aging is something that’s joked about or “fought” (think of every skincare ad), but rarely seriously discussed. If we’re lucky, we will all get old, but the avoidance of engaging with aging and identifying with aging—let alone focusing our work on it—is pervasive.
Indeed, while 10,000 adults a day become Medicare eligible each year in the U.S., only 3% of social workers concentrate in gerontology. The U.S. currently boasts about 7,000 geriatricians, about 1 for every 10,000 patients seventy-five and up. As geriatrician Dr. Samir Sinha aptly notes, “A culture that devalues the old, places little value on those who work with them.”
Further, within psychotherapy, clinicians’ attitudes are shaped by the common misconception that older adults have little capacity for change. In fact, older adults are shown to be as responsive to therapeutic interventions as their younger counterparts, and some research suggests they may have better outcomes because of our human tendency to make temporal goals. If you have less time, you don’t want to waste it. You want to do the work.
Many of the seniors I know are doing such work— engaging in individual and group emotional support to deal with issues like grief and loss, and participating in social and political organizing to create and maintain support networks and to claim political power. As any LGBT senior knows, folks in our community have rich histories of activism, advocacy, and community building.
Richard Marino, 64, a member of Openhouse’s Gay Gray Writers, said, “These days in the Castro, you can feel ‘too old’ at a very young age! You have to say, ‘I belong.’ You have to bid yourself in.” Gary Garr, 70, a retired nurse commented, “In the ’70’s, we invented our own politics; in the eighties, we invented our own health care, and now we are inventing our own aging.”
Some lesbians have reclaimed the word “old” and have organized their communities around aging and other intersecting social and political issues. As proclaimed by Old Lesbians Organizing for Change (OLOC), a national group with over twenty chapters nationwide, “We name ourselves ‘Old Lesbians’ because we will no longer accommodate ourselves to language that implies in any way that ‘Old’ means inferior. We call ourselves ‘old’ with pride.”
This kind of identity politics can serve as a powerful organizing tool as well as a buffer to the injuries of an ageist society. At the same time, we hear from men experiencing ageism in the gay community starting as young as 40. As one man in the Openhouse HIV support group said, “I’m grateful to have a space where we’re all over sixty. We all ‘went through it,’ and there’s pride and comfort in that … even in the midst of a very ageist gay culture at large.”
So, how can we disrupt ageism in our everyday life? For starters, younger and middle-aged people need to think about their own “age identity”—what aging means to them and how it impacts how they relate with their community; notice when a meeting or community event is made up of people who are all around the same age, and seek out the feedback of elders to identify ways to make the space more inclusive. One seventy-year-old woman commented, “I’m probably not going to a meeting that’s only advertised through Facebook. I’m just not online that much. A phone call goes a long way.” Said another, “If I’m expected to stand for a meeting, or sit on the floor, I can’t go. At this point in my life, I need a literal seat at the table.”
Let’s then make room. We certainly won’t defeat Trump or create more equitable communities without participation and leadership that includes older adults, middle-aged, and younger adults in conversation. In a time when history seems to be repeating itself, elders’ perspectives are vital to our collective struggles for social justice.
Just as white people must confront white supremacy and men must disrupt misogyny, younger people must take on ageism— in themselves, in their work, and in their communities. Real intersectionality must include age-identities. The time is now.
Fairley Parson is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Manager of Community Engagement at Openhouse in San Francisco.