Gay and Gray: Supporting LGBT Seniors11/01/2014 by Audrey Quinn
The SAGE Center helps support gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender seniors. This audio slideshow was produced by Audrey Quinn for LifeLines. Watch the audio slideshow and read the transcript below.
Voices of SAGEs
Bill Mendez, Social worker at the SAGE Center, New York, N.Y.: “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be working with seniors, never, never. I stumbled upon the social work field quite by accident. I started out as a volunteer at St Vincent’s Hospital at the onset of the AIDS epidemic. And, I think that experience was so profound for me, seeing all these young guys, handsome men die, it really affected me. And the director at the time, she said to me, she said, ‘Bill, did you ever think, you’d be a great social worker?’ And I said, ‘No I’ve never thought about it.’
Basically, I’m assigned to the senior center here at SAGE, and any of the participants or clients who come to SAGE and get registered and if they need any kind of social service they would come and meet with me and depending on their needs I would try to help them the best way that I can. Whether it’s benefits, entitlements, financial resources, medical information referrals, things along those lines.”
Gregory Bogert, 76, Client: “So many people, at my age, are isolated. Not only isolated generally, but isolated in particular from their own history.
I mean in my case I have friends who visit me. But if I didn’t, there’s nobody that I could discuss my past with. We have no shared experiences there. There are no gay people in the building. Anymore. Been here 42 years.
All of the lamps here I’ve made. You know, I made the ceiling fixture, I make all this stuff, but I can’t do that anymore. All the work that I always did was so visual. You know I can’t paint or make things. Or read my art books. Because, I’m too unsteady, and I can’t see. So, it’s difficult!
My friends have been very helpful for me with laundry and shopping. And I figured I’d get along that way. But, you want to be able to call a friend without asking for anything, other than, let’s hang out. I don’t feel comfortable constantly asking people to do things. So connecting with Bill was amazing. I mean I really felt that I didn’t have to worry. Which is the big issue. Of having things done you know in the house, I mean strangers come into your house but you have to be able to feel comfortable with them. And, I can do that with people from SAGE.”
Bill Mendez: “Many of my clients have told me they’ve gone to other senior centers in the area. They don’t feel as welcome. If the other senior center participants get a sense that they are gay, they’re kind of judged and looked down upon. And, they feel very uncomfortable. So they don’t go. They don’t utilize those services. So they come here.”
Sofia Torres, 69, Client: “I presently am residing at a shelter. And I am seeking a place to call my own.
I’ve been in the lifestyle since I was about 14 years old. And I’ve always been a nonconformist and a militant and that sort of thing. And a pioneer, breaking into men’s work field.
I came in here to SAGE in December, 2013 after I relocated back from Vegas. I came back to New York thinking it was still 2001 like when I left! To come here, and find out that I felt like everything was Whish! Whish! Whish! You know. Just going like at a pace where I couldn’t keep up. And I was so overwhelmed. I was progressively not going anywhere.
Just thinking about it, [tearing up] kind of makes me emotional, because at that point in my life I knew that I just wanted to end it all. I just couldn’t keep up. And SAGE again was a refuge to me. They heard me out, they tried to help me in every capacity that, that was feasible. I think Mr. Mendez is an enormous individual, and that’s how I feel in my heart for him.
You know, sometimes I think some people get the impression that I’m too demanding but I just want to go on with my life because I’m not getting any younger, every minute is very important to me, you know? I want to move on, I don’t want to be stagnated or sit there and wait wait wait, you know. I want to be happy. I want to chase the women around, and you know and have fun. And enjoy what’s left of my life.”
Bill Mendez: “A heterosexual senior, he or she, they have their spouse they have their family members, they have their children, their grandchildren. This population doesn’t necessarily have that. So they come here realizing well this is a safe haven for them, there are social workers on staff who can help me to try to get whatever they’re entitled to. And they come here with that feeling knowing that it’s safe and it’s secure and no one’s going to judge, them because of their sexual orientation”
Fred Conroy, 71, Client: “Five years ago. Yeah, five years ago. Really, the operation kind of shook me up. So I mean I realized that you know, I don’t give a damn who knows what. I’m out of this game. I was almost out of life so I said, ‘I’m writing the script from now on.’
I’ve had a whole completely different life, you know. And they helped me here. We worked it out in a program, how you gonna phrase that. One of the ways you can say, ‘Did you ever, Have you ever thought I was gay?’ And their response was, ‘Well, no.’ And then you’ll say, ‘Well I am.’ So it was a great adventure for a man 65 years old to come out. I mean I was really avid. And then I made a lot of friends.
He helps me with my medicaid. For example, my medicaid was denied. So helps me get that resolved. And he also helps me if I have difficulties with my landlord. I’m in a senior housing and if there’s something going on there, he acts as an intermediary.
Unless you have people like Bill or some of the other people helping you really feel like you’re out on your own, you know.”
Bill Mendez: “Sometimes you just go home you’re drained, and especially if something happened to a group member who got sick or is in the hospital. You’ve formed a relationship with your client, and it’s kind of hard if something happens because you feel it.
And there are other days when it’s like an even keel, and you can take a deep breath and say, okay, today’s a good day. What do I have on my panel for tomorrow?”