April 23, 2019
By Sammy Caiola
Capitol Public Radio
April 23, 2019
[This is an excerpt of the California Dream collaboration’s Graying California. Explore the full series here.]
Rafi Simanton says he was arrested three times as a political activist in the ’90s.
They’re at Openhouse, a subsidized apartment building in the historically queer Haight district. It’s one of California’s few rental options explicitly for older LGBT adults.
Demand for these spaces is growing as the first wave of seniors to have lived through the AIDS epidemic seeks supportive housing and medical care. Advocates say the need for more LGBT-friendly facilities should be factored into California’s master plan for aging.
“LGBTQ seniors are more likely to live alone, and more likely to not have children,” said Marcy Adelman, the housing advocate who founded the nonprofit behind Openhouse. “It’s something the state and counties need to focus on, to provide programming to reduce isolation. “
In California, where queer rights are ingrained in the state’s cultural fabric, many LGBT seniors benefit from stronger social support networks than their counterparts elsewhere. Experts say that perk could extend their lifespans, if properly leveraged.
Cliff Shockney, 72, has gone out of his way to seek those kinds of connections in Sacramento. He’s been living alone since his partner of 29 years died in 2011.
He says it’s been difficult to find seniors with shared experiences.
“In the gay community, there traditionally has been an emphasis on being young and attractive and sexually active — older people were kind of invisible,” he said. “If you don’t get out there and do something … it’s real easy to just stay in your own little world.”
Shockney says he left Indiana for California to live more freely as a gay man, but now he’s far away from most of his relatives. He’s trying to figure out who will take care of him if his health turns south, now that his partner Gregg Anthony Kerley— known by friends as Tony— is gone.
Kerley was the social butterfly of the pair, said Shockney, a mild-mannered pianist and composer.
“If we went to a show, like a movie or at a theater, and it’s a comedy and people aren’t laughing … [Tony] would laugh this infectious laugh, and it was loud,” he said. “And people would be so tickled hearing him laugh that they’d start laughing, and then they’d enjoy the show.”
They developed a tight-knit group of friends in Sacramento, often hosting potlucks in their co-owned home.
Kerley, who was HIV positive, died of liver cancer eight years ago, on a sick bed in the living room. Shockney still lives there, surrounded by art and furniture they collected together.
“It did feel very empty for a long time,” he said. “It still feels empty at some times. But I like the house so much.”
“I would like to share my life with someone really special,” he said. “And as I get older, it’s not real fun … the clock is ticking.”
But not all connections are created equal.
“There are different types of social networks, and what we see is some are limited,” Nash said. “The key is having a confidante. When you don’t have that level of emotional satisfaction, you’re not going to have that protection.”
In addition, research shows this population suffers unique mental health challenges due to traumatic experiences such as living in the closet, facing discrimination or losing loved ones to AIDS. A University of Washington study found that these adults have higher rates of disability, depression and loneliness and are more likely to smoke and binge-drink than heterosexuals of similar ages.
Nash pointed out that HIV positive LGBT seniors are suffering some unexpected medical complications due to aggressive antiretroviral drugs they took decades ago. In assisted living facilities, they may require special care that staff don’t know how to provide.
That’s why places like Openhouse, in addition to providing needed social outlets, are also offering cultural competency training to help home care providers and senior organizations better serve the LGBT population.
Executive director Karyn Skultety says she’s worried about what will happen to her tenants when they start to need more support than the complex can provide.
“A nursing home is the last place they want to be,” she said. “We’ve got to take the existing aging system and figure out how to make it work for this group of people.”