April 12, 2024
Senior centers and nonprofits in the Bay Area are creating opportunities for LGBTQ elders to build community.

Aging can be isolating. Especially if you belong to a historically marginalized group that doesn’t fit into a traditional family structure.

When 68-year-old Alex Baccaro and his wife were thinking of moving to senior adult community Rossmoor in Walnut Creek 14 years ago, Baccaro was not yet out as a transgender man. The two had been living as a lesbian couple for several years. But that was in the progressive cities of Oakland and Berkeley. Now, they were moving to a senior community they assumed would be more conservative.

“We thought we wouldn’t be able to be ourselves and be accepted. It was a big concern for us,” he said.

Cut to 2023. Baccaro has recently come out as transgender and received a surprisingly positive response. He says he never dreamed he’d one day be able to be himself. He heads the LGBTQ Alliance at Rossmoor, which has more than 240 members and serves as a signal to prospective LGBTQ residents that they can be part of a vibrant community.

Alex Baccaro, right, president of the Rossmoor LBGTQ+ Alliance, speaks with fellow member Leese Courington during their movie night and panel discussion at the Rossmoor retirement community in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Thursday, August 3, 2023. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group) 

Reports estimate there are around three million LGBTQ adults over the age of 50 in the U.S. This number is expected to hit seven million by 2030. One-third of LGBTQ seniors fear re-closeting themselves when they seek senior housing, according to a 2018 AARP survey. Many fear they will be mistreated, refused care or abused at senior living communities due to their identities. They have faced decades of discrimination that catch up with them as they age and they usually don’t have children in the traditional sense, said Sydney Kopp-Richardson, director of the National LGBTQ+ Elder Housing Initiative at New York City-based nonprofit SAGE, the country’s largest organization focused on LGBTQ seniors.

“They commonly have families of choice,” she said. “But as we age with our peers, our peers might pass away. There’s compounded isolation and lack of support. They are looking for community. Especially in the current political climate, LGBTQ affirming housing and retirement communities can really impact the trajectory of someone’s aging in a positive way.”

The Bay Area is known for being a service-rich region for the LGBTQ community. As the population of LGBTQ seniors grows, programs and opportunities for them to come together are surfacing. Openhouse, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, has developed two LGBTQ-welcoming senior affordable housing complexes and is working on its third in the same part of the city to create an “LGBT senior corridor.”

Groups like Rossmoor’s LGBTQ Alliance aim to fill the gaps at more traditional senior living communities. The alliance regularly organizes book talks, film screenings, pride events and social gatherings to build community and raise awareness.

Leese Courington, left, talks with Michael Kandel during the Rossmoor LBGTQ+ Alliance movie night and panel discussion at the Rossmoor retirement community in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Thursday, August 3, 2023. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group) 

“Age alone makes you a lot less visible,” said Rossmoor resident Leese Courington. “When you add the other layers of identity, it just makes you recede in the background. So having something like this that increases our visibility and says, ‘yes, we’re still here, we still have issues and we want to be inclusive within the community and outside,’ that’s super important,” she said.

To be more inclusive, Watermark, which runs seven senior communities in the Bay Area, has partnered with SAGE to provide its employees with specialized training on aging issues specific to the LGBTQ community. But not everyone can afford to live in Rossmoor or Watermark, especially given that many LGBTQ seniors still carry the burden of past employment discrimination. One-third live at or below 200% of the federal poverty level, according to a 2017 study by Movement Advancement Project and SAGE.

Several nonprofits are trying to provide services accessible to LGBTQ seniors. Six months ago, Watermark by the Bay in Emeryville began working with the Oakland LGBTQ Community Center’s Elder Services program.

“We host their social seniors hour on the last Friday of every month,” said Stephanie Hall, executive director of the Emeryville community. The most recent social was an Italian lunch and karaoke afternoon. Scott Fredette, 59, was released from prison a year ago and lives in transitional housing in Oakland. At these social hours, he said he feels “unity, support and acceptance” as a gay man. “You can be yourself and it’s just so warm,” he said.

Leese Courington, right, and her wife Christie Courington, left, help Alex Baccaro, president of the Rossmoor LBGTQ+ Alliance, pack up after the Rossmoor LBGTQ+ Alliance movie night and panel discussion at the Rossmoor retirement community in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Thursday, August 3, 2023. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group) 

In Santa Clara County, Palo Alto-based nonprofit Avenidas runs an LGBTQ program called Rainbow Collective for older adults. The program offers social events, supportive services and temporary mental health help.

“LGBTQ older adults don’t have access to the same resources that older adults in the straight community or the youth of the LGBTQ community enjoy,” said program manager Thomas Kingery.

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“When today’s young LGBTQ population is old, chances are they’ll be in a better position because they have the rights to get married, have children, do all the things they can to enhance their support structure. But today’s older adults didn’t have those opportunities. Many of them had to hide to survive and are aging alone. Our program is intended to bring them together in a space where they feel comfortable and can develop positive relationships,” Kingery, himself a 52-year-old gay man, said.

The Pacific Center, a mental health-focused LGBTQ center based in Berkeley, offers free therapy groups for older adults. Anne Mitchell, the coordinator of the program, said some people come because they have social anxiety while others are recently widowed. Some are exploring their bisexual identity while others want to talk about their cognitive decline and loss of sexuality as they age.

“When I joined four years ago, I was spending too much time alone and didn’t have a social group,” said 70-year-old Richmond resident Keith Bupp. “This has really opened up my world to new people.”

Elisa Tinker, far right, speaks during the Rossmoor LBGTQ+ Alliance movie night and panel discussion at the Rossmoor retirement community in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Thursday, August 3, 2023. Tinker, a board member of the San Ramon-Danville chapter of PFLAG, is the mom of a non-binary child and was speaking about her experience. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group) 
Alex Baccaro, president of the Rossmoor LBGTQ+ Alliance, center, talks with fellow member Dorothy Schumaker-Jennings during the Rossmoor LBGTQ+ Alliance movie night and panel discussion at the Rossmoor retirement community in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Thursday, August 3, 2023. To the left is Elisa Tinker. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group) 
Audience members applaud during the conclusion of the Rossmoor LBGTQ+ Alliance movie night and panel discussion at the Rossmoor retirement community in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Thursday, August 3, 2023. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group) 
Leese Courington, left, talks with Michael Kandel during the Rossmoor LBGTQ+ Alliance movie night and panel discussion at the Rossmoor retirement community in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Thursday, August 3, 2023. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group) 

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