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Thursday, May 5, 2011

Group focuses on issues facing LGBT seniors

Elsie Gauley Vega, right, and John Schmidt produce
an episode of "Neighbors and Friends" on Tuesday at
the Johnson County/Iowa City Senior Center's  studio.
By Emily Schettler -

Elsie Gauley Vega has not always been comfortable about admitting her sexuality.
She even married a man, even though she knew she was a lesbian, because she thought it was the only way she could have children.
"I wanted to be a mother, back in the '50s, I knew no other way," Vega said.
Today, the 83-year-old mother of four is not only open about discussing her sexual orientation, she produces a monthly television show where she interviews other gay and lesbian individuals and their family members.
"My goal is to let the public know we are as normal as God made us," Vega said. "Those of us in the gay and lesbian community are members of society like our brothers and sisters."
The "Friends and Neighbors" television show, which Vega produces at the Johnson County/Iowa City Senior Center, is just one of several local initiatives to reach out to all demographics of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, including older residents. Another organization, the Visibility Action Team, has been working to address concerns specific to seniors.
The group's work began about a year ago when Jefri Palermo, development coordinator at the University of Iowa School of Social Work, approached the Johnson County Livable Community for Successful Aging to raise issues she had seen involving health care.
"I expressed some concerns that there were some folks in Johnson County who were LGBT who were having to be closeted or were experiencing discrimination in their long-term care options," Palermo said.
The Visibility Action Team would like to provide training for long-term care providers and administrators about the issues that LGBT seniors face, she said.
"It's a matter of cultural competence," Palermo said. "We still run into some disbelief and denial that these issues even exist, but that's true across all our lives. We expect a certain amount of denial, but that's why we're here. ... Yes, there are things we have in common, but there are many things that are different, and we need to be sensitive to them.
"Every care provider needs to provide individualized care that's unique to the situation. We'd like to train people to think outside their comfort zone and learn how to do an intake without making assumptions."
Though the Visibility Action Team is in its infancy, Palermo said there has been a lot of enthusiasm and support from the community.
Eventually the team would like to provide opportunities for LGBT seniors to live together, possibly in homes with assisted living or in designated wings of existing nursing homes, she said.
It's an idea that's become more common in larger communities, she said.
"Some people in the LGBT community may prefer to live among their peers as they age," Palermo said. "Some don't; some are fine living wherever as long as they feel respected and welcome, not just tolerated. What we're trying to do is create environments where it's safe to be out and age so that people don't feel that they have to be silent or hide their sexual identity."
Vega grew up in Sheffield and attended UI before moving to Panama with her husband. She returned to Iowa City about 30 years ago and says she has seen the level of acceptance grow over the past three decades.
"When I was a kid, I don't think I would have dared said out loud that I'm a lesbian, but now there are gay and straight alliances in schools, and there are books they can read with characters they can relate to," she said.
Though Vega is comfortable and proud to share her story with others, she said she often meets other LGBT seniors who don't feel the same way.
"I do find here a number of older lesbians and gays who don't want to be interviewed," she said. "It's not that they're in the closet. They just don't want to be as public as they'd be with their face on a television set."
Vega said she likes the idea of one day living among other members of the LGBT community in a retirement home.
Jerry Baughman said he and his husband, Brad Lentz, lived in a gay community in California for some time before returning to Iowa.
Baughman, 62, said he is not so sure he would want to live in a similar community in Iowa City.
"There was the idea of safety in numbers," he said. "But the community here in Iowa is much more integrated. Since I've come back, I have been incredibly touched by some of the reception I've had in my home community."

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