There’s no stonewalling old age. Who better to break new ground in retirement living than the GLBT community?
By Lois Pearlman
The drag queens and leather men who fought back against police harassment at New York City’s Stonewall Bar in 1969–thus launching the Gay Liberation movement–probably never imagined that their gay brothers and sisters would be reading brochures for GLBT retirement homes 36 years later.
But that’s exactly what many gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people of the Stonewall generation are doing. With more gay-oriented and gay-friendly options opening up, they are searching for a place to spend their senior years where they won’t have to give up their hard-won freedom to be who they are.
At age 60, Michael Kanyon is living the life he has always wanted. As a young man, he fell in love with the theater while ushering for the Guthrie in Minneapolis. Enthusiastic and enterprising, he worked his way up to become its stage director, then came west to become a filmmaker. For several years, he owned a San Francisco television commercial company, which he sold to a larger company, then moved to Sea Ranch for an early retirement.
Retirement proved to be boring, so, at an age when many are thinking about winding down their careers, Kanyon is producing two films, one, a documentary about an extraordinary dog named Rex, and the other, a fictionalized account of Rex’s descendent and the boy who loves him.
“I was retired, but now I’m fully engaged and loving it,” he smiles.
Still, Kanyon knows his second youth won’t last forever, so he is looking for some retirement acreage with six other wealthy gay male friends.
“We are actively looking for a sizable piece of property where we can have our own gated community, our own homes, share the pool and the tennis courts,” he explains.
As they grow older and need assistance with their daily lives, Kanyon and friends plan to bring in their own private nurses, which they can easily afford.
“My friends and I are unusual people, all successful. I’m probably the poorest in the group,” he jokes.
Kanyon had briefly considered buying into an upscale gay retirement home planned for Santa Rosa’s FountainGrove Inn, but he decided he wanted something more private.
“I was turned off by the high density at the Lodge. I wouldn’t be able to breathe,” he says. “Having said that, I still support the concept of the Lodge at FountainGrove.”
Apparently, Kanyon is not the only one. Buoyed by focus groups and other market research, Aegis Senior Living, a Santa Rosa—based development company with 32 senior facilities already operating on the West Coast, has decided to build what could be the first full-spectrum GLBT-oriented senior community in the United States.
Calling it the Lodge at FountainGrove, the company is planning a 148-unit project adjacent to the FountainGrove golf course and down the road from the Paradise Ridge Winery. The design calls for duplexes, an apartment-style main building, a nursing unit–which will include Alzheimer’s care–and 12 units of affordable housing for employees. Residents can opt for independent or assisted living, replete with housekeeping, meals, recreation, transportation and more.
Aegis partner Bill Mabry says his company began looking for an appropriate site after being contacted “by more than one gay and lesbian group over the years” hoping for a place where they could retire in comfort and safety.
The price tag for these upscale units will be considerable, with an initial buy-in of up to $1 million-plus and an estimated payment of $3,000 per month. But there are gays and lesbians in the Bay Area who can afford it, according to Kanyon and others. Many of them, Kanyon says, own homes that cost about $200,000 several years ago and are now worth $800,000 to $1 million. “And they’re small homes, and they probably have some savings accounts. For them it makes sense. And that’s who I think their market is,” he reasons.
The plans for the Lodge at FountainGrove are already passing through the city’s planning process, where they are receiving support from city council members, state representatives and Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey. The project’s public relations director, Wes Winter, says that openly gay Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank has invited the company to speak at a Washington, D.C., forum about senior housing.
Winter says Aegis hopes to begin construction at the end of the year and have the development ready for occupancy by the winter of 2007—2008.
Power in Numbers
Santa Rosa City Council member John Sawyer, who participated in the focus groups, thinks the Lodge has potential because it is spearheaded by a professional development company, unlike some grassroots efforts that have been long on good intentions and short on expertise.
“I remember conversations with friends 30 years ago about what we were going to do when we get old,” says Sawyer, proprietor of Sawyer’s News in Santa Rosa and an openly gay man. “Over the years, we had many conversations, but they never came to fruition. This has real potential. This could really happen.”
Such budding interest by professional developers in serving the aging gay and lesbian demographic is turning pipe dreams into reality. According to the New York City-based organization Seniors Aging in a Gay Environment, there are an estimated 3 million GLBT people over age 65 in the United States, and the number is expected to climb to about 6 million in the next 15 years. That’s a healthy niche market waiting to be served.
Open House, a nonprofit grassroots organization for GLBT seniors in San Francisco, has begun working with AF Evans development company, after seven years of trying to build a senior facility on its own.
In conjunction with a larger AF Evans development, Open House is building an 80-unit retirement home with 20 percent affordable units on the former University of California extension campus in San Francisco. It is just off Market Street, near public transportation, and one block from the San Francisco GLBT community center, says executive director Moli Steinert.
This facility, which will be geared toward the GLBT community but cannot be legally exclusive to them, will offer meals, transportation, housekeeping, recreation and assistance in accessing government social services. Seniors who need assisted living will have to bring in their caregivers at their own expense. If this venture is successful, Open House plans to work with developers to “do mixed-income housing on multiple sites,” with a focus on low-income residents.
“Our goal is to try to get as many affordable units in that scheme as possible. Even middle-income people are going to be hard-pressed to afford housing as they age,” Steinert says.
While San Francisco has a shortage of senior housing in general, Steinert says GLBT seniors are more vulnerable than many others because they usually do not have children to care for them in their later years, and most of their friends are aging, too. A survey, she says, found that only 10 percent of GLBT baby boomers in San Francisco have children.
“It’s really important we provide a safety net,” she says.
There are other reasons why GLBT people are attracted to retirement settings designed to cater to people like themselves. Many retirement facilities won’t allow unmarried couples to share the same unit for religious reasons or because it cuts into their profits.
“And the demand is so great that they don’t have to,” says Dave Latina, a gay man who is developing a gay and lesbian retirement home in Oakland.
Latina spent 20 years building low-income housing with the nonprofit company Mercy Housing, then quit to work for a for-profit company when his elderly father needed his financial support. Now Latina, 45, is devoting himself to senior housing for middle-income gays and lesbians.
“My father died, my partner is doing well in his job. I decided, ‘This is my life and my dream,'” he says.
Latina and his two business partners have their collective eye on an apartment building in Oakland, which they plan to convert for senior living if negotiations with the current owner are successful. The remodel would include safety features such as sprinklers and step-in showers with grab bars, as well as a roof-top garden, a theater, a wet bar and a wellness center. Residents would receive two meals a day, housekeeping services and transportation, but personal assistance would be extra. It’s in the heart of Oakland, and the view from the roof is extraordinary, Latina says.
Stan Pillsbury (not his real name), a sprightly 84-year-old gay man who lost his longtime partner six years ago, is thinking about moving to the new facility. Latina recalls that Pillsbury initially dismissed the idea. “‘What the heck do I want to live with a bunch of bitchy old queens for?'” Latina recalls Pillsbury saying. “But three days later, he called back and said, ‘I would live in a community like that. I would have more fun.’
“He doesn’t want to live in a Sunrise,” Latina continues, referring to Sunrise Senior Living, a traditional retirement-home company. “Because, he says, you have to come out again. You have to take down the pictures when the cleaning lady comes in.”
Reached at his home in Oakland, Pillsbury admits that, even as a “very discreet” gay man, he would not want to live with a group of heterosexual elders whose attitudes toward homosexuality come from an earlier era. He finds a gay retirement home like the one Latina is planning a desirable alternative.
“If the time comes when I have to move out of my house, I would very much like to live in a place like that,” he says.
Maria Dwight, a heterosexual woman who has become one of the most sought-after consultants for the burgeoning GLBT retirement industry, describes older gays and lesbians like Pillsbury as the “pre-Stonewall” generation. They are the ones who need the senior services now, although it is primarily people in their 50s and 60s who are most actively seeking out gay-oriented retirement communities.
“They [aging boomers] are looking for a sense of community. They have a strong understanding of the need for supportive healthcare later on, and they don’t want to go back in the closet when they need care. They have dealt with providing care for their parents. We are a very service-oriented society and they epitomize that. They want exercises, Pilates, a gym, a pool. They are looking for an investment rather than a rental because they are younger,” she says.
A high-energy woman in her 70s, Dwight has homes in Los Angeles and Monte Rio, but spends most of her time hopping planes to advise on gay retirement-home projects slated for such places as Cincinnati, Boston and Washington, D.C.
Currently, there are only a handful of GLBT retirement communities, and none of them provide assisted living. Like the very first gay retirement community, the Palms at Manasota, near Sarasota, Fla., they all offer individual lots for single-family homes and/or recreational vehicles.
But a quick Internet search reveals dozens of companies and organizations that are planning gay retirement projects across the United States and in Canada, Spain, Sweden, Great Britain, the Netherlands and beyond.
Many of the communities are being created in urban areas, where GLBT people tend to congregate and where people are accustomed to high-density habitation. In West Hollywood, a part of Las Angeles known for its gay population, L.A. mayor Antonio Villaraigosa recently officiated at a groundbreaking ceremony for the first publicly funded senior home tailored for lesbians and gays.
Called the “Hollywood Project,” its working title, so to speak, the facility will have 104 units of apartment living for people 55 and older. Eligibility will be decided by lottery and will be based on income and disability needs, with 30 percent of the units reserved for people with HIV/AIDS. A nonprofit program, Project Angel Food, will provide meals for the residents, and there will be a computer room with training, libraries on each floor, a garden, a pool and other services.
“They’re working on the second floor as we speak,” says Mark McBride, the director of development and communication, during a telephone interview earlier this month. The place should be ready for customers by the end of the year.
McBride is quick to point out that, with 70 percent government underwriting, this is “the first [gay and lesbian retirement facility] to develop a prototype for how you get state and federal funding.” The rest of the money is coming from donations.
It’s in the heart of West Hollywood’s cultural and commercial district, a block from the famous corner of Hollywood and Vine, and within walking distance of theaters and the farmers market, McBride says.
Andi Segal, a 60-year-old lesbian disabled from an accident 12 years ago, is hoping that her number will come up for an apartment. A gentle but outspoken woman, she lives in a mobile home park surrounded by a mix of gay and straight neighbors, but she is finding it hard to make ends meet and would welcome public housing as an enormous relief.
Having lived as a lesbian since the age of 17 and now finding herself alone after 36 years with a beloved partner, she wants a place, she says, where “I can be myself and talk about my life. Where I can talk about my significant other, who was part of my life for 36 years.”
Segal has a son in his 40s, so she is not alone, but she would enjoy being part of a compatible community.
“When a spouse passes, the wife or the husband talks and talks. We want to be free to do that, too,” she says.
Birds of a Feather
Freedom is also what Bonnie McGowan, 56, had in mind when she purchased 140 acres in Pecos, N.M., 10 years ago. That’s after she sold her investment-banking firm and devoted herself to her true love: real estate.
It has taken McGowan a long time to realize her dream of turning her land into what she’s calling the Birds of a Feather Resort, a retirement community “for the second half of your life.” A few of those years were tied up with appeals against the approval for her project, which went all the way to New Mexico’s state supreme court–twice. Now she has sold 13 of the 18 lots planned in phase one and is in the process of building her own home on the property.
Most of the buyers, she says, are middle-aged people, 42 to 63 years old, who plan to build their homes over the next five years. They can choose from three plans: predesigned “casitas” on small lots; custom-built homes on one-acre lots; or “eco-nests” made of all-natural, environmentally friendly materials.
While many younger oldsters are carefully planning for their golden years to be enjoyed in a community of like-minded people, a few are living out their last months in a small gay-oriented assisted-living community that is one of Guerneville’s best-kept secrets.
Christina Bell, a nurse who was tired of working in formal hospital settings, opened Our Family Compound, also known as “Our Place,” in 1999. The property has a few private cottages, a nursing facility with 24-hour care, hospice and Alzheimer’s care. Currently one of the cottages houses a gay male couple, with one partner needing assistance and the other still going off to work every day.
“Everyone’s lifestyle and life situation is different,” Bell says, describing how one man received hospice care at the facility for the last six weeks of his life while his “family” of friends camped out on the property so they could be with him while he died. “We respect your relationships and your family,” she says.
Bell is passionate about her work, a trait she shares with just about everybody involved in cobbling together options for GLBT people as they get older and more vulnerable.
“Somebody’s got to be here to provide a place that’s OK,” she says. “Some of us are going to end up in facilities. Some of us are not going back to our families. We don’t want to keep hiding at the end of our lives.”
From the February 22-28, 2006 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.
© 2006 Metro Publishing Inc.