9/3/2021 | By Annie Tobey

For anyone looking for a senior living community, that last word matters: “community.” Housing, dining, medical services, and amenities matter, a lot. But feeling welcome and valued converts new living quarters into a home. For anyone looking for LGBTQ-friendly senior communities, the need to feel accepted resonates deeply. Knowing how to identify a welcoming environment can help you land in your best new home.

A time to be

Many LGBTQ baby boomers came of age – and came out – during the height of the fight for gay rights. They have faced discrimination throughout much of their lives. The last thing they need in their golden years is more condemnation for who they are; but their concerns in planning for post-retirement living are very real.

Bill was 80 and ailing when he moved into an assisted living community. He’d never married or had children, and his family had ostracized him when he was in his 20s. He had many close friends, but that was a problem. The staff and residents where he now lived were not accepting of gays – he had gotten several snide remarks after he moved in and quickly adopted a more masculine look.

To cope, Bill moved entirely back into the closet. He even forbade his friends from visiting. They were gay, and he feared being seen with them. When he died, he died alone – and lonely.

In 2016, Mary Walsh and Bev Nance put down a deposit for a unit at a continuing-care retirement community. After learning that the two women were married, Friendship Village rejected them.

The Equality Index, co-sponsored by SAGE Advocacy and Services for LGBT Elders and the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, says, “With no federal level protections, half of all LGBTQ older adults in the U.S. live in a state where they can be legally denied access to housing and public accommodations.”

Those who do find a place to live still have worries. A recent AARP study found that more than 60% of the LGBTQ seniors surveyed were concerned about how they would be treated in a long-term care setting. Their fears ranged from neglect and verbal harassment to inadequate care and physical abuse.

These concerns are grounded in fact. According to a 2020 study published in the Journal of Palliative Medicine, 54% of hospice and palliative care providers think LGBT seniors are more likely to experience discrimination, while 24% have witnessed discriminatory care.

If you’re seeking LGBTQ-friendly senior communities, for yourself or a loved one, how can you find a home that is welcoming and accepting?

Tailored for ‘family’

Some communities have arisen explicitly to welcome LGBTQ people. As with other senior living options, services and amenities vary. For example:

  • Several 55+ active adult living communities offer only housing options, no food services or medical care: Carefree Cove in western North Carolina, Rainbow Vista in Oregon, and A Place for Us in Ohio.
  • Established as an LGBT community, Carefree Cove has since opened it gates to other residents as well.
  • The Birds of a Feather gated community is open to all ages and to “friends” but designs home with aging-in-place considerations and emphasizes green living.
  • Stonewall Gardens in California includes assisted living services for residents who need additional support.
  • Fountaingrove Lodge in Sonoma County, California, touts itself as the nation’s first LGBT and Friends independent senior community, including continuing care service options.

6 questions for identifying LGBTQ-friendly senior communities

Senior housing options that don’t specifically target LGBTQ elders may – or may not – actively support diversity. From management to frontline staff to residents, attitudes and actions matter. To find a community that works for you or your loved one, ask these six questions.

1. What is your non-discrimination policy?

A senior living facility may or may not promote its policies on its website, so you might need to ask directly. On the other hand, even a community with a posted non-discrimination statement may not be accepting in day-to-day interactions. To know how welcome an LGBTQ elder will be, you’ll need to dig deeper.

2. Do you have LGBTQ residents and/or staff?

If yes, ask to meet the residents. If you do, ask of their experiences with staff and other residents. If you meet staff, you can note whether they seem comfortable expressing their identity.

3. Does your organization have a specific religious affiliation? If so, how does that affect policies and practices?

United Church Homes, which operates more than 70 senior living communities across 14 states, has connections to the United Church of Christ. The UCC denomination has a history of affirming LGBTQ people, and UCH is actively inclusive. The UCH website proclaims, “The communities of United Church Homes are open to everyone, regardless of race, gender expression or sexual identity, color, religion, sex, national origin or disability.”

On the other hand, homes affiliated with conservative religions and denominations may not morally accept all sexual preferences. Communities in states that ban discrimination may be compelled to accept a gay resident; however, residents who don’t fit the group mores are likely to feel unwelcome. They may need to hide their identities or be alienated by other residents and staff.

“We’ve heard about [staff going to a resident] and taking out a Bible and praying for the elder to ask for forgiveness,” said Dale Mitchell, LGBT Aging Project co-founder, in the 2010 documentary Gen Silent. “And [telling them they could] be cured,” added Lisa Krinsky, LGBT Aging Project director. “So they go back in the closet.”

If in doubt about an organization’s beliefs, research the group’s doctrines, history, and practices.

4. Do employee benefits and policies reflect LGBT acceptance?

This is a key sign for many LGBTQ senior living communities. For example, do benefits acknowledge same-sex as well as opposite-sex partners? Do dress codes allow or restrict untraditional clothing choices? An organization that doesn’t accept employees’ lifestyles is less likely to accept residents’ lifestyles.

5. Have staff received anti-discrimination training?

A formal nondiscrimination policy doesn’t mean that staff know how to treat people who are different from them. Even staff who are open and welcoming may need guidance in vocabulary or unconscious biases – especially in LGBTQ-friendly senior communities.

“I treat all my clients as a professional,” said one caregiver in the Gen Silent documentary, “but if I saw two women kissing, that’s just wrong.”

SAGE offers cultural competency training to any agency that provides services to older adults. As of August 2021, the organization has trained 122,000 people at 604 providers in 48 states. Participating organizations receive SAGECare credentials, and the SAGE website provides a directory of credentialed providers.

Of its SAGECare training, nationwide Watermark Retirement Communities says, “Armed with greater knowledge, empathy and understanding, Watermark communities will be even more poised to serve our diverse communities, associates, families, friends and guests.”

6. Do you have policies and practices that demonstrate acceptance of LGBTQ and other minorities?

Ask of – or look for – signals of acceptance:

  • Does the facility have non-gendered restrooms?
  • Can people of the same gender room together?
  • Does the website or common rooms have images of same-sex couples?
  • Do you see rainbow flags or other affirming signs?
  • Do intake forms include gender-affirming options?
  • Does the facility grant power of attorney requests, even of a same-sex partner?
  • Are there events or policies affirming other minorities – religions, racial and ethnic groups, etc.? A welcoming community may not have gay residents – yet. But they may embrace other minority groups, making them likely to be open to gays.

Every LGBTQ individual has different expectations for the acceptance of others. Through careful research of various LGBTQ-friendly retirement communities, you can find a welcoming new home – one where you can be you.

Annie Tobey

Annie Tobey has been a professional writer and editor for more than 30 years. As editor of BOOMER magazine, she explored a diversity of topics of particular interest to adult children of seniors. When she’s not writing, she can be found running the trails or enjoying a beer with friends.

Annie Tobey