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Combating Social Isolation and Promoting the Inclusion of LGBTQ Older Adults in Orleans

The following article was written by AARP MA intern Chloe-Rose Crouch:

As communities across Massachusetts strive to become Age-Friendly, it’s critical to focus on the Respect and Social Inclusion Domain of Livability since one in three older adults report feeling lonely and disconnected from their community.

By encouraging the social participation of LGBTQ+ elders and allies, the Orleans Senior Center helps make Massachusetts great for people of all ages.  Along with the Council on Aging, the Orleans Senior Center co-hosts a monthly LGBTQ+ dinner, which is a great example of how improvements in this domain can make life better for older adults.

The dinner started five years ago with the aim of becoming more inclusive towards LGBTQ+ elders. “We heard stories of people moving to Cape Cod for retirement, but then not feeling welcomed because of their LGBTQ+ identity,” says Judi Wilson, Director of the Orleans Senior Center and Council on Aging. “We didn’t have robust LGBTQ+ representation at the senior center, so our goal was to create spaces that are friendly and welcoming for all people.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the dinner occurred on the 4th Friday of the month for 10 months out of the year and served between 30 and 40 people per event. For larger, annual celebrations like the center’s Pride Barbecue, attendance was typically over 70 people. “Of course, we had to pause the events due to safety concerns over the past year,” says Wilson. “However, I’m excited to report that we’ve been granted permission to re-start our dinners and other events in June.”

In addition to this event, the senior center hosts LGBTQ+ film festivals, annual holiday celebrations, and meditation programs. The Council on Aging also partners with SAGE , an advocacy organization for LGBTQ+ older adults, to host intergenerational dinners for young people and adults 55+. They invite members of Thrive, an alliance organization at local high schools across the Cape and Islands, and LGBTQ+ support networks in Hyannis. In fact, some of the highest-rated programming for the center has been intergenerational. “It’s wonderful to see such a powerful effect on, not just elders, but the entire community,” says Wilson. These events help combat isolation by bringing people together, encouraging growth in the Respect and Social Inclusion domain. Furthermore, the intergenerational aspect of these events makes life better for people of all ages.

While the purpose of these dinners is to provide opportunities to socialize, many events are educational, targeting issues specific to queer elders. “We host a series of workshops focused on the needs of the LGBTQ+ population in order to disseminate critical information,” says Wilson. For example, the center hosted an attorney who spoke about life planning with a focus on the concerns of the LGBTQ+ community. Therefore, in addition to combating isolation in older adults, these events make improvements in the Communication & Information Domain. “In addition to educational workshops like this one, we have information tables at every event we host,” adds Wilson. “We also initially held the programs at a time when the building wasn’t open to the general public, which makes people feel safer. This means they’re more likely to attend, and more likely to access this information.”

The Communication and Information domain is critical to any Age-Friendly Community because staying connected is key to being fully engaged in community life. Ensuring access to information about community events is an important step in making Massachusetts a place that’s great for all ages.

Wilson is happy to report that, since the senior center started LGBTQ+-focused events, they are now seeing greater representation of LGBTQ+ older adults in their other programs. “The most important aspect of this for us is creating a welcoming environment,” she says, “we want people to know that they are respected and included.”

Wilson and others at the Senior Center positively impact their community by making improvements to the Social Participation & Inclusion and the Communication & Information domains. “Socialization helps people age successfully,” says Wilson, “connecting with other people is critical to aging well, so we are delighted to bring people together.”

To learn more about AARP’s Livable Communities Initiative, click here.

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