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Retirement Communities Find Niche With Gay Seniors

The Rainbow Vista retirement community in Gresham, Ore., bills itself as "100 percent gay owned and operated."
Chris Lehman
for NPR
The Rainbow Vista retirement community in Gresham, Ore., bills itself as "100 percent gay owned and operated."

When Pat Matthews turned 65, her declining health led her in search of a place that could offer increasing levels of care as she grew older.

And Matthews had one other requirement: She wanted to bring Carol Bosworth, her partner of nearly 20 years. At the very first place they visited, that was a problem.

"They didn't say we couldn't come. But they said that we would be best off if we were sisters," Matthews says. "We crossed them off our list, because that's not the way we want to live."

As lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people age, finding suitable retirement housing can be a unique challenge. Some facilities allow only married couples to live together, and many gay seniors fear a cold shoulder from staff or fellow retirees.

But some retirement homes have begun catering specifically to LGBT seniors. Matthews and Bosworth found a more welcoming reception at one such facility, the Rose Villa retirement community in Portland, Ore.

It's a fairly typical senior complex: People share gossip and do jigsaw puzzles in the lobby. Matthews says she and her partner were fortunate to find it.

"Some of our gay [and] lesbian friends that are older than us have chosen to stay home, because they don't trust what they might find," she says.

Making A Home More Welcoming

Rose Villa CEO Vassar Byrd says the community had always welcomed gays, but that Matthews and Bosworth's story was a wake-up call.

"I couldn't believe that in this day and age that that would happen," she says. "I was absolutely shocked beyond belief."

They weren't saying, 'Oh boy, here's our gay couple.' They were saying, 'Well, here's our new resident.'

Byrd set out to make Rose Villa as hospitable as possible to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. She immediately integrated LGBT issues into the diversity training that all staff — from nurses to custodians — undergo.

Advocates for gay seniors say Rose Villa's level of concern is pretty unique. And while it's nearly impossible to quantify, they say a growing number are going back in the closet in order to find a retirement facility that will accept them.

Hilary Meyer, with the National Resource Center on LGBT Aging, says one of the biggest barriers to finding welcoming housing is a lack of sensitivity among staff.

"Older adults now have lived with this historic discrimination and stigma, and they have a tremendous fear, of course, of service providers carrying that into their work."

Meyer describes a typical case: An elderly lesbian grows infirm. With no immediate family, she moves into a nursing home, and "the staff at the facility dresses her in dresses and other feminine clothing. This obviously can be very disconcerting to a woman who has not worn a dress in 25 years."

'100 Percent Gay Owned And Operated'

Rainbow Vista, a gay-friendly senior complex in the Portland suburb of Gresham, is considered by many to be one of the most gay-friendly senior complexes in the nation. It proudly bills itself as "100 percent gay owned and operated."

Currently, everyone living there is gay or lesbian, but resident Doug Schukar says that's not a requirement.

"If somebody over the age of 55 wanted to move in here, and they weren't judgmental and bigoted and everything else, they'd be just as welcome here as anyone else is."

Schukar and his partner, Don McClure, moved here from central California in the summer of 2011. McClure says they spent months investigating retirement housing options.

"It was important for me that I could have a gay community; a place that I felt safe and I could be myself, especially as I start the aging process."

Despite stunning views of Mount Hood and relatively low rents, Rainbow Vista is only about one-third full. Elsewhere, some predominantly gay retirement complexes have waiting lists.

While an all-gay retirement center may be of interest to some, many gay seniors prefer to live in a more diverse community in their golden years. Back at the Rose Villa, Rod Dolan says he and Michael Stotts, his partner of 35 years, weren't looking for a gay retirement home. They just wanted a place where they'd be accepted for who they are.

"People were actually glad to see us," Dolan says of Rose Villa. "They weren't saying, 'Oh boy, here's our gay couple.' They were saying, 'Well, here's our new resident.' "

In fact, Dolan says, it's precisely the sort of welcome they received when, in their younger years, they first moved to their old neighborhood.

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network

Chris Lehman graduated from Temple University with a journalism degree in 1997. He landed his first job less than a month later, producing arts stories for Red River Public Radio in Shreveport, Louisiana. Three years later he headed north to DeKalb, Illinois, where he worked as a reporter and announcer for NPR–affiliate WNIJ–FM. In 2006 he headed west to become the Salem Correspondent for the Northwest News Network.