Seniors who do not have supportive family connections are frequently referred to as “orphan seniors.” Many of us who are LGBT have never had children and we may be alienated from other family members. While there are many supportive services provided by government and non-profit agencies, they cannot fulfill all the needs that can arise when a health-related crisis occurs.
Our past efforts to create non-traditional family ties are more difficult now as our peers develop their own age-related challenges. Many of us also lost many friends during the AIDS pandemic and now we are losing friends to age-related causes. Even if we are partnered, we may be isolated as a couple and there may come a time when one of us will be alone. So whom can we call upon for practical and emotional support when a crisis happens?
First of all, I think we have to be prepared for the unexpected. We might make a list of things that need regular attention in the event we are unable to carry out those tasks. Is there a pet that would need care? Are there bills that would need to be paid? Is there a garden that would need regular watering?
Secondly, we might begin to think about who might fulfill those responsibilities. This involves some creative brainstorming as we don’t want to burden just one person. Think about neighbors, acquaintances, and connections made through shared activities such as clubs, meet-ups and walking groups.
Thirdly, we will want to make it easy for people to help us. That means getting over our attachment to independence and learning the value of interdependence. We need to feel as comfortable asking for help as well as we do offering it. We also need to make our requests clear and definite and to offer options. When someone asks “How can I help?” and we feel it is sincere, we can offer a list of concrete possibilities from something simple such as picking up an item at the store or providing a periodic phone check-in to something more involved such as a home visit or going with us to a medical appointment.
Conversely when we are called upon to support another, it is important to know our strengths and to set boundaries. For example, some us are much better at practical support than we are at emotional support. We need to contribute in ways that allow us to be both comfortable and effective.
Buz Hermes is co-facilitator of the Sonoma Valley LGBT Seniors Group and a former staff member of Spectrum’s Senior Outreach Program. He is currently a consultant on LGBT aging and can be reached at [email protected] or (707) 227-6935.