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West Suburban Senior Services offers an LGBT Seniors Program that provides a social outlet.  The program also  provides counseling services and finding adequate health care.   

Anna Bisaro/MEDILL

LGBTQ issues discussed at annual health and wellness conference.

Many seniors feel left out of the discussion when it comes to LGBTQ issues

by Anna Bisaro
Nov 21, 2013

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West Suburban Senior Services

LGBT Seniors Program

Fridays 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.: Lunch & Discussion Group

Mondays 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.: Crazy Crafters

Monthly Movie Night on fourth Wednesday of every month from 4 to 6 p.m.

All programming takes place at 8300 Roosevelt Road in Forest Park.

For more information, contact Eric Vironet at 708-234-1859 or

A rainbow sticker on the front door in suburban Bellwood is enough to ease fear of discrimination. 

Signs of inclusion, as simple as that, can greatly affect senior citizens who fear homophobia and discrimination from their peers.  

“Think of somebody who is 70 or 80 and what it was like when they were coming of age,” said Eric Vironet, director of the LGBT Seniors Program at West Suburban Senior Services. “It’s hard for us to understand now the stigma in the past.”

Vironet skipped a conference that focused on LGBTQ health and wellness issues this week, saying he doubted much emphasis would be put on elder issues. 

He was right: the daylong affair, in which researchers presented findings about key issues facing LGBTQ communities, featured a single session devoted to research focusing specifically on senior citizens.

Lawrence A. Tabak of the National Institutes of Health told the conference how funding is divided for  NIH programs.  Most of the LGBT projects funded by NIH deal with HIV/AIDS and behavioral and social sciences.   

According to a chart Tabak included in his presentation, only 2.7 percent of LGBT NIH-funded projects deal with aging populations.    

Tabak asked the audience of about 200 professors, students and community members to offer suggestions for future NIH LGBTQ research funding because “in government, every voice has to count.”  

People called for research to move beyond the bounds of HIV/AIDS.  Some wanted it to focus on the role of the family in a youth’s ability to tell the world of their identity.  Some asked for increased support for families with LGBTQ parents or children.  Others asked for a greater focus on relationship health for same-sex couples.

Developing research that focused on how best to help the aging LGBTQ population was not mentioned by anyone, despite the fact that one of the event sponsors, the Center on Halsted, was the first in Illinois to offer services to seniors that identify as LGBTQ. Formerly Gay Horizons, the center was founded in 1973.  

Dr. Claudia Mosier, the center's director of mental health, said the center sees an average of 500 clients a year. The most important aspect of the center for people of any age, she said, is that they feel safe in disclosing their status.   

“One of the amazing things ... is having the entrance at Whole Foods, so even if people don’t want to be seen coming into the center they can come into Whole Foods and go into the center that way,” Mosier said.  

Vironet first visited the Center on Halsted when he was a master’s student studying social work.  He accompanied a small group of LGBT seniors from the western suburbs on a trip there. Together they took two trains and a bus and “a hike” to attend a program for LGBTQ seniors at the Center on Halstead.  It was then that he recognized the real need for LGBTQ services in the area.

In July 2012, West Suburban Senior Services received a grant from West Lake Health Foundation to begin its LGBT Senior Program.  Modeled after the Center on Halsted approach, the program offers discussion-based luncheons on Fridays, craft nights on Mondays and monthly movie nights on Wednesdays. 

Though only 13 seniors attended the first Friday discussion, the group now has between 30 and 40 regular attendees, Vironet said.  

Van Johnson, 60, will lead the lunchtime discussion this Friday about coming out.  He said even for senior citizens coming out can be a long process.  Many still fear the stigma and oppression they faced as youth, he said.    

Johnson said he has also noticed many seniors who may have come out to friends and family in the past suddenly go “back into the closet” when they move into assisted living or need home health care.  Many fear judgment from caretakers or conservative seniors. 

In addition to social programming, the LGBT Seniors Program at West Suburban Senior Services wants to provide seniors with lists of affirming medical providers. 

Health problems for senior citizens are the same whether they identify as LGBT or straight, said Dr. Alison Holloway of Northwestern Memorial Physicians Group.  There should be no distinction.  It is, however, a matter of feeling comfortable with a care provider.  

Holloway said once she has established that her family practice is a safe and welcoming environment through conversation, LGBT patients stop referring to their partners as friends or cousins and are open about their relationships.  This can be particularly important for a senior living with a long-term same-sex partner who relies on them as caretakers.  

But, stigma can be a barrier for caretakers and program directors too, Johnson said, as he had to overcome his own ideas about the LGBT community to begin working with this group.  “I thought I would be the last person to get involved in this,” he said.  Johnson is now working on his master's degree in social work at Aurora College, and his involvement in the LGBT community will not end with the program in Bellwood. 

The group promotes a safe environment for LGBTQ seniors, Vironet said, and part of that is keeping the group as confidential as possible because the stigma and discrimination is still present among older populations, despite strides the youth have made in recent years. 

But the signing of the marriage equality bill Wednesday was not just a positive step for the LGBTQ young and middle-aged adults of Illinois.  Seniors will now be able to receive financial benefits under the law.  Many who have long-term partners can now marry and receive Social Security benefits if one partner dies.  

The benefits, Vironet said, will also be emotional and psychological.  “You can see the excitement on their faces to see this happen in their lifetime.”