The D.C. Office on Aging, which oversees a wide range of city programs for senior citizens, has been working to create a “safer space” for LGBT seniors in all of its programs, according to its executive director Laura Newland.
In an interview with the Washington Blade last week, Newland responded to concerns raised by LGBT activists that the Office on Aging has not responded to longstanding requests to designate one or more of its numerous senior drop-in sites throughout the city as an LGBT seniors facility.
As part of its programs, the office operates six Senior Wellness Centers and 50 Congregate Meals sites that offer seniors a place to obtain a free meal and socialize with other seniors. Newland said each of the Wellness Centers also provides entertainment and other amenities services for seniors, including computer terminals with free Internet access.
Among those raising concerns about the office’s LGBT seniors outreach has been David Mariner, executive director of the DC Center for the LGBT Community. Mariner said DCOA has so far declined repeated requests that it provide funding for the Center to serve as an LGBT seniors congregate meals site.
The DC Center currently provides a weekly brunch and social gathering for LGBT seniors at its office in the Reeves Municipal building at 2000 14th St., N.W.
“I have talked to David a couple of times about this,” Newland said. “What I’ve told him is we’re not accepting applications for new meal sites right now. But if he could show consistently that he had a group of seniors who were interested in this type of program that we would definitely make an exception and consider it,” Newland told the Blade.
“So what we’re really focused on is one, making sure that all of our current programming creates a safer space for all seniors, including LGBTQ seniors, and also that we’re reaching isolated and underserved seniors of which we would include LGBTQ seniors,” she said.
“So we’re focused on both of those things at the same time.”
Since there are currently no specific LGBT senior wellness centers or congregate meals sites, Newland was asked if LGBT seniors would feel comfortable and welcome should they visit any of these existing facilities.
“Part of my job is to make sure that we as a city are meeting people we’re they’re at,” she said. “And so it’s not my place to tell anybody you should feel safe in this space. It’s my job to do everything that we can to create safer spaces,” Newland said.
“And so we do that through cultural competency training,” she continued. “We do that by really making a commitment from our executive level down to our front line staff not just at the Office on Aging but all of our grant recipients to be able to participate in that type of cultural competency training.”
Newland added: “We spent a lot of time over the past year actually going to LGBTQ senior events, some of which are hosted by some of our grantees and others by nonprofits in the community. And it’s been a really great experience for us and we’ve learned a lot.”
She noted that the Office on Aging is hosting an LGBTQ Town Hall Meeting on Tuesday night, Sept. 26, from 5:30-7 p.m. at the Hayes Senior Wellness Center at 500 K St., N.E.
Last week, Newland and DCOA Communications Director Karen Dorbin provided the Blade a tour of the Senior Wellness Center in Ward 1 at 3531 Georgia Ave., N.W. where longtime gay entertainer and emcee Rayceen Pendarvis hosted a game show.
Pendarvis, who is the longtime performer of his popular Ask Rayceen Show, called on the seniors at the Georgia Avenue center to compete to identify the names of popular recording artists known for their specific songs.
Newland said her office has arranged for Pendarvis to organize shows in all of its wellness centers.
“One of the things we want to do with our current spaces is to make them be more open and to have people feel more comfortable about being out basically,” she said. “And so one of the things we decided to do is to really focus on bringing in the kind of entertainment and conversation about LGBTQ right in our centers.”
Despite these developments Mariner of the DC Center has pointed to information he received from the Office on Aging through a Freedom of Information Act request he submitted last year, which shows far fewer LGBT seniors participate in DCOA programs than the estimated number of LGBT seniors living in the city.
According to a chart released to Mariner by DCOA called “Self-Identified LGBT Seniors,” the office’s Senior Service Network had a total of 72 LGBT clients in fiscal year 2014, 78 in fiscal year 2015, and 94 in fiscal year 2016. The same chart shows that in the category of “straight/heterosexual,” DCOA had 8,059 straight/heterosexual clients in 2014, 9,444 in 2015, and 9,814 in 2016.
Newland told the Blade this week that the chart DCOA released to Mariner doesn’t accurately reflect the true number of LGBT clients being served by the office.
“I wish I could say our data tells the story, but it doesn’t,” Newland said. “Overall, very few of our callers answer all of our demographic questions, and we don’t require answers to all of the questions in order to receive services,” she said.
“While we don’t know how many seniors receiving services identify as LGBTQ, we do ask all callers during intake,” she continued. “Our primary and immediate goals are to create safer and more affirming spaces throughout our network and reaching isolated seniors through programming for LGBTQ older adults.”
Ron Swanda, a longtime LGBT seniors advocate in D.C., prepared a detailed report on the state of LGBT seniors in the District in 2014 for the Age-Friendly D.C. Task Force, a city advisory group of which Swanda is a member.
His report states that LGBT seniors he interviewed generally had no problems with members of the DCOA staff, who they said appeared to be LGBT supportive. Their main concern, Swanda’s report says, was with other seniors attending various DCOA programs, including the congregate lunch programs, who the LGBT seniors viewed as unfriendly and in some cases hostile toward them.
The best way to address this problem, Swanda states in his report, and which he said this week remains largely true in 2017, is for DCOA to create one or more LGBT specific congregate lunch sites or other LGBT specific sites.
“They don’t have to be exclusively for LGBT seniors,” he said. “They can just make it known that the focus is on LGBT seniors and everybody is welcome but if you have a problem with that you don’t have to come,” he said.
Swanda’s report, which was updated earlier this year for a D.C. Seniors Symposium in June, says many LGBT seniors remain unaware of the programs offered by the Office on Aging, including the senior wellness centers or the congregate lunch programs. It calls on the DCOA to more aggressively reach out to LGBT seniors.
Newland said her office is working diligently to make changes when necessary to address these concerns.
“You know, we take criticism really seriously,” she said. “And I think that our job is to really make sure that we serve all seniors. I’m not focused on just checking boxes and saying we do this, we do that. We’re in this for meaningful change,” she said.
“And this mayor and this administration have been very clear that it’s about meaningful and substantive change…We take a lot of time and think about it and ask ourselves how we can improve based on what we’re hearing in the community,” Newland said.