Gay and lesbian elders have lived long enough to see amazing changes: marriage rights, the rise of AIDS activism, celebrities coming out. But there is something that may drive some of them back into the closet: long-term care.
Afraid of abuse or discrimination, LGBT seniors who are open about their relationships with friends and families may hide that part of their lives if they enter nursing homes or assisted living facilities.
It's a real concern. Gen Silent, a 2011 documentary, hopes to shed light on the issue. The one-hour film by independent California director Stu Maddux opens the doors of nursing home rooms and private homes, letting LGBT seniors and the people who care for them tell their stories.
"We forget that we have an entire generation of people for whom being out wasn't even an option," said Tony Plakas, CEO of Compass Gay & Lesbian Community Center of Lake Worth. "They can't be guaranteed an environment, as they age, where they will be treated equally."
One social worker in the film, who coordinates sensitivity training in care facilities, describes watching a nursing aide offer to pray with a frail resident to be forgiven for the sin of being gay. "I watched this film and got sick," said Ellen Wedner, chairwoman of the Miami Jewish Film Festival who brought Gen Silent to South Florida through her nonprofit, Creative Arts Enterprises, in association with Treece Financial Group Inc. "None of us imagines aging or getting older, so this is serious and thought-provoking."
No one is sure exactly how many gay and lesbian seniors there are in South Florida, let alone the numbers in retirement centers. There could be as many as 53,520 LGBT elders in Palm Beach and Broward counties alone, by the common estimate that 10 percent of the overall population is homosexual.
Lawrence Johnson, a 68-year-old retired teacher in Delray Beach, was recruited by Maddux to be in the movie shortly after the state of Massachusetts named Johnson as Caregiver of the Year in 2007.
The camera follows him from his former home in suburban Boston into a nearby care facility where his partner of 38 years, Alexandre Rheaume, struggles with conversation during their daily visit.
"I love you," Rheaume finally murmurs clearly through the dementia that clouds his memory and blurs his speech.
Johnson and Rheaume, who was 22 years Johnson's senior, met at Harvard University. They made a home together and, like many other couples who grow older together, Johnson found himself a caregiver when Rheaume was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.
Johnson suddenly discovered that in other ways they weren't like other couples. A social worker connected him with a caregiver support group, "but I felt uncomfortable, being the old gay person there. I never felt I could talk about my issues," he told the Sun Sentinel.
At the first nursing home where Rheaume lived, "they weren't prepared to deal with us as a couple. You could pick up the vibrations, especially from the aides," Johnson said. A second nursing home stay went much better, after Johnson had a frank talk with management in advance. The administrator "made it very clear we were welcome and if I got the feeling we weren't wanted, I should come to him," said Johnson, who eventually moved to Delray with his new partner after Rheaume died in 2009.
"Stories from the Field," the report that included the 2010 survey, found that the most common complaint was abuse or harassment of gay or lesbian residents by other residents, accounting for about one-fourth of the instances. It was followed by being abruptly discharged, about 20 percent of the cases; and verbal or physical harassment from staff.
More than three-fourths of the survey respondents said gay seniors would hide their sexual orientation if they ended up in institutional care.