LGBTQ Older Adults and Shelter in Place

by Dr. Marcy Adelman. This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Bay Times.

A pedestrian carries toilet paper as she crosses a nearly empty Market Street on March 17. (Getty Images)

These are extraordinary times. It has only been since March 17 that Mayor Breed ordered San Francisco residents to shelter in place, to stay indoors, to slow the spread of infection from COVID-19. We are to remain in our homes and only go out to conduct essential activities such as to buy groceries or for a medically related need. It is not such a simple request to isolate ourselves when information about the virus’ progress and the evolving and sometimes confusing response of the federal government creates a collective feeling of dread and anxiety.

As the economy comes to a standstill, more and more people lose their jobs, and reported infections and deaths rise, it becomes increasingly clear that this unprecedented health crisis will touch and forever alter all our lives. How we care for each other and those that are most vulnerable will define us for generations to come.

The National Center for Disease Control (CDC) has identified people 65 years and older with chronic health issues as the population most at risk for severe illness. Other high-risk populations are people with respiratory illnesses, compromised immune systems, and/or HIV.

During this health crisis we need to reach out and check in with each other by phone, email, or text. We need to make a special point of reaching out to people at high risk who may need help with groceries or medication.

Friends and colleagues of all ages report that people are calling and connecting with each other to share their concerns, offer support, express their gratitude for help received, or just to say hi to let folks know they are not alone.

A friend, an HIV long term survivor in his 60s, called me with concerns about his community: “So many of us are already isolated. This (the stay at home order) will only make things worse. Many of us, including myself, depend on the food banks, not only for our food but also as a way to meet up with others and socialize. The city needs to figure out a way to continue this service.”

One friend in her 60s, whose wife has a seriously compromised immune system, was worried that she hadn’t been careful enough with COVID-19 precautions before the shelter in place was initiated. “But I know,” she said, “you can only do what you can do. Despite all that, I know we are in a better place than those who don’t have a home or who have few financial resources.” Another friend in his 60s, who is caring for his husband challenged with Alzheimer’s, left this message on my voicemail: “Thanks for calling. We are OK. All we can do is ride this out and be there for each other.”

Another call was with a friend who was laid off from his work in the restaurant business. He doesn’t have much in the way of savings. He doesn’t know how he is going to get through this crisis, but he is grateful for living in San Francisco. “I’m not afraid of getting sick,” he said. “You know, because I’m young and in good health. The scariest thing would have been losing my apartment. I don’t know what I would have done. There was no way I could pay next month’s rent. You know, I never thought the city would help, but they did. All I need to do is show my landlord I have been laid off because of COVID and I get an automatic delay in my rent.”

Our community nonprofits also need to be supported to continue their services and programs to keep people healthy and safe.

I asked Toby Shorts of Curry Senior Center what challenges Curry was experiencing since the shelter in place went into effect. He replied, “Curry is remaining open and will continue providing assistance for urgent needs. One concern is that nearly 20% of our population is homeless and unable to isolate. Whether they are in a shelter or on the streets, they are at very high risk and need to access services for their most basic needs. Beyond being older, many of them also have underlying conditions that compound their risk of contracting COVID-19.”

He continued, “We’re working to keep distance between clients when they line up for breakfast and lunch, but they can’t minimize exposure in the same way that housed and moderate or better income individuals can. We’re lucky to have the clinic on site, but we’re also aware that access to sanitizer and masks is limited. Moreover, Curry was founded on the principle that reducing isolation saves lives and now we’re telling people that they need to isolate in order to survive. Case managers, clinic staff, and program assistants are making phone calls to check in with our older adults, but a significant number of them don’t have consistent access to phones.”

“The City has been supportive,” he added, “but our annual Gala has been postponed and the state of the economy is likely to affect our fundraising abilities. If both the City and the community can continue to support Curry throughout and beyond the pandemic, then we stand a much better chance of continuing to provide services to our population. If we’ve learned anything from this so far, it’s that no one was truly ready to respond to a crisis like the coronavirus and nonprofits are particularly vulnerable because we don’t carry a substantial reserve fund or hefty savings.”

I asked Openhouse’s Executive Director Karyn Skultety about what challenges her organization is experiencing. She replied, “Openhouse is open and we are making sure that when you call during business hours, there is someone to talk to and help you figure out the next step. In addition, we didn’t want to wait for people to reach out because we know for many of us, that is the hardest part. So, staff are calling everyone who has walked through the Openhouse door since July 2019.”

She continued, “We are working closely with our partners at Mercy Housing to ensure the needs of the residents at 55 and 95 Laguna are being met. Our case management team is doing phone support and in-person visits if health/safety issues arise. I’m working closely with the Department of Disability and Aging Services and the Office of Transgender Initiatives, along with LGBTQ and aging service partners, to identify broader strategies that need to be employed for our seniors. We all need to come together and think larger than our individual organizations to respond to this crisis. Alongside isolation, which we are actively trying to address, we are concerned about how seniors will safely access food, medications, and other essentials. This is critical for seniors who are insecurely housed and living in poverty, but it is also a concern for seniors who were not set up to receive help with grocery shopping or meals at home before this began.”

Skultety added, “This time is absolutely heartbreaking because it amplifies the experience that many LGBTQ seniors were having before the virus outbreak. They feel invisible and experience high levels of isolation from our community. That said, I am heartened by the community response that we are seeing. For the first time, people of all ages are thinking about the seniors they know and what they might do to support them. Imagine what a world we might build if we can make that a change that lasts beyond this pandemic.”

Please do your part. Call friends. Donate to an LGBTQ+ senior serving non-profit. Stay safe and healthy.

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Dr. Marcy Adelman, a psychologist and LGBTQ+ longevity advocate and policy adviser, oversees the Aging in Community column. She serves on the California Commission on Aging, the Governor’s Alzheimer’s Prevention and Preparedness Task Force, the Board of the Alzheimer’s Association of Northern California, and the San Francisco Dignity Fund Oversight and Advisory Committee. She is the Co-Founder of Openhouse, the only San Francisco nonprofit exclusively focused on the health and well-being of LGBTQ+ older adults.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.