Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Pot at the End of the Gay Rainbow

If we can't adequately take care of our parents, how do gay people expect to take care of themselves as they grow very old?

I'm now of the age that when I get together with friends (who are also usually around my age), talk often strays to taking care of infirm parents. The stories often are not happy. These are not tales of Mom and Dad taking off for a Caribbean Cruise or a drive in the Great Smokies. More likely these are plaints about Medicare coverage, short-term memory loss, chronic pain, and the oxygen tether.

In my immediate circle, our surviving parents are in fairly good physical health, considering that all of them are on the sunset side of 80. All of them have their aches and pains. One suffers from COPD. Another has had TIAs that caused memory loss and anxiety. Another has some signs of chronic depression. The common thread to all of these elderly people is that they are becoming increasingly isolated from family, friends, and caretakers.

Their isolation isn't deliberate, but as physical infirmity increases, the task of seeing other people, getting out of the house, shopping, getting one's hair done becomes onerous to the point that our parents just don't get out anymore. Most of them also have the frame of mind of not wanting to bother other people, so family and friends don't visit as often as needed. Finally, the cost of caregiving, and general maintenance of their homes poses financial strain on some so that repairs, or modifications (to accommodate their infirmities) don't get done.

I don't have any solutions to this. I know, though, that our parents' caregivers have a tremendous burden, and at the end of the day, our parents' needs are still not met. And it's not about money, either. Most of our parents have financial means to take care of themselves reasonably well. The real problems are that they've outlived their social network of friends, and that their families are often scattered and far away. They've experienced creeping isolation for months and years, and wake up one day to find out they are pretty much housebound and very dependent on one or more caregivers who also have busy lives of their own.

This is all prologue. My friends and I are getting older, and we've all seen the golden years up close and personal with our parents. What's our pot at the end of our gay rainbow?

Most of my gay friends have the financial means to live to the end of very long lives, the current financial mess notwithstanding. We've seen our parents grow old, and the solutions to their situation are variations on the theme of duct tape, twine, and rubber bands. The financial framework has worked okay, if not quite well, but the social component has not been particularly good at all for our parents or their caregivers (often one of our sisters, or maybe one of us). What lessons have we learned, and how do we make the very old phase of our lives gold rather than dross?

Gay people need to think as seriously about their social future as they do their financial future. Most of us will not have family to take care of us when we are very old, so the threat of isolation for us looms even larger than with our parents. We will also probably live longer than our parents, so the isolation may be longer and deeper, too.

Here are some needs. I'm not sure how to get there, but perhaps out of this, a necessary discussion about the kind of old age that we want can begin.

  • Financial independence that will last to the end of our lives.
  • How ever we plan to retire and be financially independent, we should definitely have a rational plan that has a reasonable chance of success. Financial planning is key, considering that many of us will end up living very long lives, far beyond the time that we stop working. Working with a financial planner, and mapping out a financial future is our responsibility, and the first step to finding the pot at the end of the rainbow.

  • Housing that meets our physical and social needs.
  • Many of my friends are already considering housing that meets their physical needs. We're talking about single story homes here. Stairs become increasingly incompatible with old age. Of course, other considerations include wheelchair accessibility, ease of bathing, and dressing, and means of food preparation as we grow older. Beyond the physical, I also want to live in a community where other gay people live. I don't want to retire to a community or an assisted care facility where I could not live my life as I want to. And I don't want caregivers who would in any way object to my life as a gay man.

  • An assisting social network that will help us remain in our homes, and keep us in a larger social world.
  • We need a corps of elderly gay boy scouts, or its or moral equivalent. A major burden of elderly people is getting around, getting to the store, to a doctor's appointment, or to the movies, or lunch with a friend. Chores around the house are a challenge: housecleaning is a strenuous activity. Finally, we may need a daily call or reminder to take our medications. The most important part of this is face-to-face human contact. It helps stave off social isolation. Somehow we need to develop a community that cares about its members.

  • A means to keep us mentally and physically engaged with the world appropriate for our mental and physical abilities.
  • Mental and physical fitness are a personal responsibility. Clearly, if we don't use it, we lose it, and that's especially true as we get very old. We need the means, institutions, and our own devices to stay fit mentally and physically. I'm not sure how to do it, maybe it means having a dog, and working in the garden, and doing a daily crossword, but we need to work at keeping engaged with our world.

Have I covered all the bases here? What's your take on Grey and Gay, and what's the pot you're looking for at the end of the rainbow?

I hope you join this discussion. I think it's critical for the gay community to recognize the scope of this issue, and start talking now about needs, plans, and institutional/community structures that can help LGBT people have a secure and happy old age. Sooner or later, if we live long enough, we'll all get old. Let's be ready for it.