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(Photo of SunServe’s Mark Ketcham and Chad Thilborger by Tony Adams)

As the out and visible LGBT population ages and replaces the closeted and invisible seniors of previous generations, its need for services and protections has caught the attention of local providers, community leaders, and state and national government agencies. On Monday May 7, the University of Miami hosted the White House LGBT Conference on Aging, bringing together Florida state and local leaders, Washington representatives and policy makers, and a large number of concerned straight and gay citizens with first hand experience about the unique difficulties and obstacles faced by LGBT seniors.

Mark Ketcham, executive director of SunServe, with administrative offices in Wilton Manors, was a “Community Perspectives” panelist at the conference.

Ketcham says, “Our mission in South Florida is to provide social services to the LGBT community without regard to the individual’s ability to pay. This includes mental heath services both individual and group, teen suicide prevention and self-esteem building and adult daycare.” Chad Thilborger, SunServe’s new director of institutional advancement adds, “We are expanding our services into the areas of human resources, administration, employment law and now quality of life issues for seniors.”

SunServe’s newest step in its outreach to LGBT seniors is the establishment of a “phone tree” that will assemble a volunteer team to call their LGBT neighbors in Broward County who may be homebound or would like to touch base with someone every day. This initiative will build personal connections that might be missing in the lives of solitary LGBT seniors. The project is well constructed with provisions for volunteers who may be snowbirds or sometimes out of town. Anyone interested in becoming a “phone tree” volunteer will receive a three-hour training on Saturday, May 19 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the administrative offices of SunServe in Wilton Manors. Verifying the need for this type of outreach, a straight couple attending the conference spoke about their concern for an elderly gay neighbor who lives alone. They wanted advice about assisting him respectfully and without breaching his privacy.

Ketcham says, “We have so many seniors who are ‘aging in place’ here in Broward County who do not have family or friends they can rely on. In the LGBT community, we are never old until we break a hip or have to have our gall bladders removed.  That is when a senior suddenly begins to worry about that picture of a former partner on the nightstand or that rainbow flag by the backdoor. What will the medics think? Will the neighbors or the visiting nurse mistreat them once their private life is exposed? Who is going to help a transgender person who needs to go into a rehab facility? Can we find a facility that will take that person without giggling?”

Thilborger’s role at SunServe is to make sure new programs do not outstrip funding. He says, “The last thing SunServe will do is start something and then watch it collapse. We started our youth services in tandem with getting funding. For outreach to LGBT seniors, we are well positioned and ready when funding is secure. What I got out of the White House conference is that dollars are about to flow.”

In addition to having their infrastructure in place, SunServe already has a good handle on the statistics of the LGBT senior population in Broward County. (As was noted by many speakers at the conference, before the increase of LGBT visibility in recent years, counting LGBT seniors and assessing their needs was impossible.) SunServe recently commissioned a survey in conjunction with Florida Atlantic University called “SunServe Care Management: Seniors and Caregivers Needs Assessment” which, says Ketcham, “helped us know what’s out there. It is also important because without clear stats, you can never make a strong application for funding. SunServe covers all of Broward County, but we will take anyone who calls us, and we often get calls from Miami, Jacksonville and St Pete.”

“Broward has 1.8 million residents. Seniors are 20 percent of that number with 10 percent of that group being LGBT. That translates to roughly 36,000 people. The challenge is that no one has ever asked questions about those seniors, so there is no baseline. It has only been two years since Washington (through HUD) began counting LGBT people in terms of housing. We have to remember that for many older LGBT Americans, managing a life in the closet has become a badge of honor. How do we reach closeted seniors? When funding is secure, what if the governor of Florida says ‘We don’t have any gay seniors’? SunServe will prove the size of that community and that its needs are real.”

Part 2 of this report on LGBT seniors in South Florida and the White House Conference on Aging will focus on initiatives at the state and federal levels aimed at improving the lives of LGBT seniors.