When Jena Recer and her wife Karen Phemister moved to Austin to act as caregivers for Jena’s elderly aunt, they quickly realized just how much there was to learn about taking on that role–so it didn’t help to face prejudice on top of their new responsibilities, as when a physical therapist suggested that as a lesbian couple they were bound for hell and needed to repent. Less invasive but still unsettling was the realization, Recer said, that the definition of “family,” for both straight and gay caretakers, can be sometimes limiting.
“When she [Recer ’s aunt] was in the hospital over Christmas, the nurse doing intake said ‘does she have any real family?’ Ironically they were treating Karen as a real niece, but deciding nieces weren’t real family,” Recer said. “That’s something we as lesbians need to be aware of: This generation, the generation that’s aging now, are the last that didn’t feel the same freedom to have children. We really need to take care of each other, that’s essential. I fear whether or not we’ll be able to do that.”
Recer and Phemister aren’t alone in their concern, said Kathleen Coggin, director of in-home care and caregiver services for Family Eldercare. Coggin is spearheading the launch of a new service for Family eldercare, Austin Gay and Lesbian Senior Services (AGLSS).
Family eldercare works with elders and adults with disabilities, providing essential services. The organization promotes and works towards creating a supportive community with dignity and as much independence as possible for those clients. AGLSS is in many ways an extension of that basic mission, Coggin said, but it also will address issues and challenges specific to LGBT elders and their caregivers.
“When you’re talking about people 75 years and older, the life experiences they have are very different than someone in the LGBT community would have today,” Coggin said. “So it’s not uncommon to find LGBT elders 75 or older who maybe didn’t come out, or have only come out to a small group of family, and those people may have passed away. Now they face another layer they have to fight through – who’s coming in my house, how will I be treated, will I be safe? There’s reported discrimination from many older adults.”
Sitting at her desk as she speaks, Coggin takes out a sheet of statistics and reads them off: up to 75 percent of LGBT seniors live alone, compared to about 33 percent of the general senior population; 90 percent have no children; and 80 percent age as single persons, without a life partner or significant other. That lack of traditional support puts LGBT seniors at a much higher risk for depression, premature death and unnecessary institutionalization.
Add to that the fact that while many seniors are reluctant to seek help to begin with – Coggin laughs as she recalls an 80-year old man waving away the idea of an advanced directive with “eh, I don’t need that”–LGBT seniors may feel even more reticent to have a caregiver in their home for fear of discrimination.
“Let’s say you’re gay, you really haven’t come out. Now you have the risk of someone coming in and proselytizing. Do you really want that at age 75, on top of everything else?,” Coggin said.
AGLSS ensures that the people working with elderly LGBT clients will not discriminate or proselytize. it also tackles issues that caregivers face with a caregiver support group. and, Coggin added, through AGLSS seniors will be able to discuss and get guidance on legal issues.
“We work with older adults making sure they have advanced directives in place,” Coggin said. “But you have to go above and beyond if you’re in a [same sex] partnership. Lambda Legal is a good resource and there are attorneys in our community who are good resources. But even with that, there’s no guarantee that your wishes will be honored.”
While Family eldercare already has a mission to offer services to all elders without discrimination, many people in the LGBT community are afraid to access services, said Bob Cross, who Coggin credits as integral in planting the seed for AGLSS and jump starting its inception. Cross, who works with KUT radio and is a member of the Austin Babtist women, is no stranger to making things happen. That group, an all-male, all-volunteer group, tours the country doing performances to raise money for HIV/AIDS, breast cancer and other charitable causes.
“It’s not like the services weren’t available,” Cross said. “It’s what Family eldercare already does. But it’s never been directly targeted to our community, and the problems and issues involving LGBT elderly have never been directly focused.”
Cross notes that one of the most interesting aspects of AGLSS’ formation has been that Coggin, as well as the two Family eldercare board members who have helped launch AGLSS, are heterosexual. Coggin laughingly sums up her own tenacious tendencies, saying “once I get hold of something, it’s like ‘look out!’” once a successful executive with AT&T, Coggin decided several years ago that she wanted to do something that gave back to her community. She’d grown up partially in Houston, but when she decided to move back to Texas, she made Austin her home.
“It became apparent I had to make a dramatic change in my life,” Coggin said. “That’s what I did, I moved to Austin without a job, just packed my car up.”
She found a real passion working with older adults, she said, and went back to school to study gerontology and worked as a hospice volunteer before joining Family Eldercare.
“I know at the end of the day when I go home, that if not me, my team or someone in Family Eldercare really made a difference in the life of an older adult that wouldn’t have happened otherwise,” Coggin said. “It might not have been everything we wanted to accomplish, but we certainly make every conceivable effort to make sure our community of older adults and caregivers are supported.”