Starting more than 30 years ago to provide AIDS services for women and children, the LGBT Life Center in Norfolk, Virginia, continues their initial goal. Expanding in 2011 to include the LGBT community, the center runs an inclusive health clinic that provides a safe space and has programs that assist the youth and seniors who are a part of this vulnerable community.
One does not have to be a member of the LGBT community to receive services such as:
- Fast, free, and private HIV, STD/STI testing, and counseling
- HIV and STD/STI education
- Mental health counseling provided on a payment scale
- Support groups that empower and educate
- Social and networking activities provided in a safe space
- A lending library and education opportunities
- Transportation to and from medical appointments
- Health care navigation
- Permanent housing
Check the website www.lgbtlifecenter.org to see the services that the center provides in the Hampton Roads area.
Stacie Walls, CEO of the LGBT Life Center, is looking to a future in assisting those most vulnerable and has reasons for why this program is changing. She states, “This new program will develop a coordinated approach to senior services in an LGBT affirming atmosphere. Too frequently, individuals who are elders are not comfortable disclosing sexual orientation and gender identity to mainstream providers.” The reason for this change according to Walls is “prior to this new program, LGBT Life Center was serving almost 300 seniors in existing programs with no specialized emphasis on creating intentional support for aging individuals.”
The COVID-19 pandemic uncovers a need that Walls explains in this way, “The LGBT Life Center will implement LGBT senior support services with social opportunities to gather virtually with other LGBT seniors. We will develop and implement a comprehensive ‘wellness’ program that will assess a person's need for ongoing care coordination.”
Why is it so important to provide social care to the LGBT community? The answer is two-fold. One reason, Walls specifies is, “seniors are at a much higher, alarming risk during this COVID-19 pandemic. In response, The Center is implementing virtual programming to support LGBT seniors/elders to reduce isolationism, depression and to ensure health and wellness.”
The second more complex reason is those in the LGBT community are not always married with family support. Receiving a grant to develop the program targets the challenge of isolation among gay men. Statistics reveal that 16% of LGBT persons are married compared to 50% in heterosexual unions in the older population. This leaves 50% of gay men living alone. Because of their age, and not having the traditional family unit that includes children or spouses, many become part of a “chosen family.” The chosen family is a strong social network where friends may step into traditional family roles.
The LGBT Life Center combats the isolation by providing virtual support groups with tele-health resources, group meetings, assisting with food delivery, housing support, and conducts a “buddy” program that keeps the connections viable. This is done on a regular basis by phone as well. By checking on individuals, at times the contact is more social but can lead to talking to a person in such a way to draw out other needs that might go unnoticed.
This need to change direction propels the Life Center to strive for the goal of having a two-way communication between senior LGBT members and mainstream society. By creating the open communication each person will get “more insight into what each person goes through when they do not have the needed support.”
To help put this need into perspective, the future vision for the Center is to unravel the complexities that the 50-plus community face and help them to navigate details like Medicare; provide information on how to transition from the workplace to retirement or have deal with caregiving. Walls notes that “nearly 60% of surveyed LGBT older adults in one study reported feeling a lack of companionship. Over 50% reported feeling isolated. LGBT seniors tend to have fewer available family caregivers since they’re less likely to be married or have children. They tend to be estranged from other relatives due to nonacceptance.” She also believes that AARP volunteers have the expertise to connect the members of the LGBT community with local events such as discussions on caregiving and health.
She shares that the attendance at such community events as the Pride Festival fall short of meeting the needs of, say, trans people who may be homeless, or in need of healthcare. She sees AARP letting the community at large know about the LGBT community needs specially; and, to have open avenue for continued support.
While the impacts of COVID-19 cannot be measured, the most vulnerable require specific solutions. Both AARP and the LGBT Life Center can benefit from the partnership. Walls excitement and passion for caring for the elderly LGBT community shines as she shares, “We can be a resource for which you (AARP) can refer individuals to us for service and likewise, we can refer individuals to AARP for education and advocacy.”