While gay seniors have rights, often those rights are delayed and blocked when it’s time to put things like powers of attorneys and health-care proxies into effect, or when their partners want to visit in the hospital. Immediate family who are opposed to their elderly relatives’ relationships may try to prevent their partners from seeing them or try to override their wishes as to who makes medical decisions, and unknowing staff sometimes lets them do it.
The issues faced by gay seniors were expressed over and over again at a town hall meeting September 23 at the LGTBQ Center in uptown Kingston. The main reason for the meeting was to offer public testimony to state, county and local officials on next year’s pending reauthorization of the Older Americans Act, the Great Society-era federal legislation which covers a pretty broad spectrum of social and nutrition services provided to the nation’s elderly. While the new text contains language citing the importance of addressing the needs of “vulnerable senior constituencies,” it doesn’t, according to LGTBQ Center officials, identify those constituencies.
Many of the 20 people (out of a total audience about five times that size) who spoke told the panel of officials — which included representatives from the state Office for the Aging and congressman Maurice Hinchey’s office; state assemblyman Kevin Cahill and county executive Mike Hein; Ulster County legislators Walter Frey and Mike Madsen; and Kingston alderwoman Jen Fuentes — that they thought such language was necessary. “Cultural competence” needed to be taught and insisted upon at hospitals, nursing homes and home-care centers. While such language may be hard to get passed, given the strength of the opposition to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the political trouble same-sex marriage advocates have been having, that anti-gay bias is even more reason for federally legislating protection of same-sex seniors’ prerogatives.
Jeff Baltes, a member of the LGTBQ Center board and SAGE (Service and Advocacy for Gay Elders) of the Hudson Valley, said of a recent session of gay elders at the center. “I’m going to say one word that was a common thread throughout that entire session. That word is fear.” Fear, Baltes said, of being even further marginalized than their fellow seniors because of their sexual orientation.
An educator, Baltes admitted that mandates, especially unfunded ones, evoke a fear and loathing of their own, but in this case a mandate was called for. “We need to look at mandating culturally competent care for our LGBT elders,” he said. “We need to assure that we are named specifically. Not intimated, not there by default…but named specifically. And with that mandate needs to come the training that will help to assure that the law bridges from the word to the actual execution of the spirit.”
The next step was to educate, to help folks understand that they needed to treat members of the LGBT community with the care and compassion that all others receive, Baltes said.
A few of those who spoke were moved to tears when they spoke of their fears about what would happen in their last days and after if those in charge of their health care and financial decisions, whether institutions or relatives, chose not to recognize their partners. If the family member indicated by law to be in control of an invalid relative disapproved of the relationship, there would, they said, be nothing they could do to make sure they could see their partners, or that their partners would be financially cared for after their passing.
“My partner and I were together for almost 32 years,” said Denise Bonifant, 63, of Barryville. “We did all the right things — we made our wills, we had power of attorneys drawn up and had health-care proxies.”
But the experience of one of their friends who had their access to their partner taken away caused a change in strategy, Bonifant said. “Based on her experience, my partner and I decided to lie. Actually, we committed fraud. My partner and I became ‘sisters.’ To every doctor, nurse and official and in every document we signed, we lied,” Bonifant said. “We both knew it was against policy and against the law and we could have been in serious trouble. It didn’t matter. We didn’t want to face the anguish our friends had gone through just because we were lesbians. To be denied and ignored during the most frightening and devastating part of a person’s life is contemptible.”
Vanessa Shelmandine, coordinator of programs and service for the LGTBQ Center, said that in her professional capacity she attended a gathering last month of two dozen Hudson Valley adult-home operators who came for training offered by the center. Shelmandine said she asked for a show of hands of how many of the homes had a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered resident. “Six hands went up,” she said. “And then I heard the stories. I heard the story of the lesbian resident who’s completely alienated because the other residents refer to her as a ‘he.’ Staff think it’s not malicious, but it’s about dementia, and they’re working with those residents, but now this resident has really been separated from the tribe.”
Shelmandine’s anecdotes continued. “Two other homes talked about a niece and a nephew, who effectively had power of attorney and who wanted to use [that] to prevent partners from visiting each other. ‘My Uncle Joe is not to visit with Bob Jones. Bob Jones is not allowed on this property.’ Adult-home operators have to struggle with this and say, ‘We don’t think that’s legal. Is that legal? No, it’s not legal. Let’s call in the ombudsman.’ In the one case, it resolved pretty well and the couple continues to have the relationship and see each other. In the other example, which happened right across the river from here in Hyde Park, unfortunately, the resident’s partner was coming to visit, and the resident’s nephew, who had been unhappy that he couldn’t interfere with this, waited outside and assaulted the older gentleman so badly that he spent weeks in intensive care. These are stories that are happening right here in our neighborhood.”
But, Shelmandine noted, there was some positive news as well. “Mount Alverna Nursing Home, right here in Wappingers Falls, had its first lesbian couple move in last week. And they were walking through the home, holding hands and dancing together at the dinner-dances. That is the culture that the administrator of the home set.”
Gay seniors got some help this spring on the federal level. In April, President Obama told Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sibelius to draft rules that would mandate that any hospital which receives Medicaid and Medicare payments — virtually all hospitals —allow patients to designate who can visit them and not discriminate who has access to patients because of race, sex, national origin, gender identity, sexual orientation or disability. The memo also calls the department to ensure that hospitals are complying with patients’ powers of attorney and health care proxies, documents gay couples can use to pick who gets to make their health-care decisions.
While Obama made reference to childless widowers and members of religious orders who might want someone who is not an immediate family member to be allowed to visit or to designate who will make health-care decisions on their behalf, the memo also makes note of the need gay couples face: “Also uniquely affected are gay and lesbian Americans who are often barred from the bedsides of the partners with whom they may have spent decades of their lives — unable to be there for the person they love, and unable to act as a legal surrogate if their partner is incapacitated.” Sebelius was given 180 days from April 15 to come up with further recommendations.
Despite that, the worries persist. Judy Mage, 75, said she is in good health, “but all this can be changed in an instant…My partner is 17 years younger than I am. If I were to die tomorrow and had married someone named Antonio rather than Antonia, he would stand to get a portion of my Social Security benefits. If we had a legal marriage in New York, I could have put her on my health insurance. All of these things add up to a sense of being a second-class citizen,” Mage said. “We really do need recognition. We’re ordinary people like everybody else. We should have equal rights.”
“Everyone in this room is a civil rights hero, just because of who they are,” said Katherine Furst, 29, of Greene County, who may have been the youngest person to speak. “We need to be named. We need to be counted in the census and in other places. We need competent care, and cultural competence training for everybody in certain professions. And,” she said, addressing the public officials present, “it starts with you.”
State Office for the Aging director Michael Burgess, billed to appear, sent deputy director Marcus Harazin instead. The latter thanked everyone for their input, and said there were many opportunities for change, and that the state was developing training curriculums for ombudsmen and home-care coordinators, and making changes in state rules as well, to help enhance awareness of lesbian, gay and transgender seniors’ rights.
Assemblyman Cahill offered the audience “a moment of encouragement in an understandingly dismal environment.” He spoke of the progress made in the state legislature of getting more gay assembly members and senators and gay issues advanced. County executive Hein showed emotion himself, condemning anti-gay bias and vowing that such discrimination would not happen at the county-run Golden Hill Health Care Center.
Ted Hayes, who at 79 is the oldest founding member of the LGBTQ, gave particularly moving testimony. “Imagine not being hugged and kissed by someone I loved and who loved me back until I was age 52,” he said. “Since we were unable to marry, I was unable as his partner to share in either his pension or his Social Security. When he died, the combined household income was cut in half. The expenses were not. Will I be forced to enter a nursing home with people from my generation who may have been responsible in part for the misery of my first 47 years? I absolutely dread that.”
Hayes spoke for training in cultural competency. “I might be forced back into the closet,” he said. “Please hear me. Please don’t let that happen.”++