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An inviting home for the "gay and gray'

Ruthie Berman and Connie Kurtz want a retirement community they can afford, in a place they like, with assisted living if they should need it.

But the two grandmothers want more: a community of like-minded people with whom they feel safe and supported as a lesbian couple.

"I don't want to have to explain being out of the closet," Berman said.

They have turned to RainbowVision Properties, which plans to break ground by the spring on a complex for the "gay and gray" that will offer condominiums for sale and independent-living and assisted-living apartments for rent.

The complex, which could open in 2005, will include a dining room, community rooms, studios for artists and a rooftop cafe.

Joy Silver, RainbowVision's president, has dreamed for decades about a retirement community for gays and lesbians, but a stroll through Manhattan's West Village _ where she lived about six years ago _ persuaded her to try to make it a reality.

She found gay-friendly Santa Fe the perfect spot. It is second only to San Francisco in the percentage of households with same-sex couples, according to the 2000 Census.

"We're in the right place at the right time," she said.

A handful of retirement communities in the United States market themselves to gays and lesbians, but they don't offer such a range of options, according to Silver. The Santa Fe community will include assisted-living services, including medication management. A registered nurse will be on the premises around the clock.

"As far as we are aware, it is the first of its kind," said Terry Kaelber, executive director of Senior Action in a Gay Environment, a social services and advocacy organization in New York City.

Kaelber said conservative estimates show there are more than 3-million gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender residents older than 60 in the United States. But even so, "our community has been slow to admit that we age," he said.

Many older gays and lesbians have a fear of mainstream service providers and are reluctant to turn to them for help. They grew up at a time "when every part of society said that you were less than those around you," Kaelber said. "The medical community literally branded us as being mentally ill."

Now that they're older and more vulnerable, gay seniors fear that they'll encounter that same bigotry, and many go back into the closet, Kaelber said.

Since moving from New York, Berman and Kurtz have lived for several months in a gated community for people older than 50 in Florida. They are activists and a very public couple, the subject of the 2002 documentary Ruthie & Connie: Every Room in the House. It chronicles the story of the two young housewives and mothers from Brooklyn who become fast friends and eventually fall in love, leaving their husbands for one another.

While some of their Florida neighbors are friendly, they also have encountered prejudice. "You must be one of "them,' " a woman in the pool told Kurtz.

The notion of a welcoming environment that would make the tough job of aging easier is so appealing that Berman and Kurtz not only got on the waiting list for RainbowVision, they invested in the project.

They're counting on a place where "growing old doesn't have to be as painful," where medical and other services would be provided with sensitivity, where the mundane act of filling out forms wouldn't be an affront because there's no box they fit into.

Ninety-one-year-old Hilda Rush, who describes herself as "Santa Fe's oldest living lesbian," has her cherished independence and the health to enjoy it. She lives alone, goes to her book and bridge clubs, delivers food to the homebound and works out at the gym twice a week.

She, too, has reserved a spot in the RainbowVision community, where a spa and fitness center are planned. "I'm just hoping it materializes in my lifetime," Rush said.

Like the rest of the population, gays and lesbians tend to become more isolated as they get older, said David Aronstein, founder of Stonewall Communities, which plans to open in Boston in the next couple of years a complex of cooperative apartments for older gays and their friends.

"The older generation in the gay and lesbian community has been kind of hidden, kind of invisible. They haven't necessarily been out of the closet," Aronstein said.

Many don't have children to care for them.

"The conversation that has happened among groups of friends for years has been, "What's going to happen to us when we're older?' " he said. "We are in the position of having to imagine what kind of future we want to have, and create it."

RainbowVision Santa Fe's $28-million project will be built on a 12.7-acre site a few miles south of downtown. It will have 146 units. While it's aimed at gays and lesbians, it won't be exclusive, Silver said. Nor will it be age-restricted: Among the prospective tenants are a couple of men in their 30s from Los Angeles, one of whom has multiple sclerosis.

With barely any marketing, 45 people already have signed up.

Peter Lundberg, a San Francisco area financial consultant and developer, has been researching the market for seven years.

"It's a huge and untapped market that's ready, willing and able," said Lundberg, who will target gay adults from ages 55 to 72 in his proposed "Our Town" retirement resort village. The location hasn't been decided.

Lundberg said surveys completed by 900 people indicate that older gays and lesbians strongly seek community. They want the same services and amenities as other retirement community residents _ but delivered with a different sensibility. And, overwhelmingly, they want a place that is developed and run by other gays and lesbians.

On the Web

RainbowVision Properties:

Senior Action in a Gay Environment: Stonewall Communities:

Our Town:

"Santa Fe's oldest living lesbian," as Hilda Rush, 91, describes herself, has reserved a spot in a retirement community of a different sort _ for the "gay and gray." Developers say it will be the nation's first full-service retirement community for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender population.