Author: Christiana Lilly

David Kilmnick knew an LGBTQ retirement community was needed when reaching out to elder facilities for educational programs.

The founder and president of the LGBT Network on Long Island, New York, he recalls a facility telling him “we have none of those here,” referring to LGBTQ people.

“I’m not talking this was 50 years ago or 20 years ago,” he says. “This was like five years ago.”

In September 2021, Kilmnick and his nonprofit opened the doors to The LGBT Network’s LGBT/LGBT Friendly Senior Housing, a 75-unit affordable housing community for LGBTQ+ elders. Here, residents can live out and proud with their partners and participate in programming at the 8,000-square-foot community center.

It’s a part of a growing response to the needs of the community, one where many grew up closeted and discriminated against, but also to see positive changes like marriage equality and a more welcoming society.

“It’s incumbent on us in the LGBT social service field to make sure that we create these safe and inclusive housing facilities so LGBTQ seniors and elders could age gracefully and be out and proud,” Kilmnick says.

The Palms of Manasota on the Gulf Coast of Florida touts itself as the first LGBTQ+ retirement community in the nation, while the Triangle Square Apartments in Los Angeles is considered the first affordable housing facility for elder LGBTQ+ people.

This community has the same needs as anyone else in their age group, but they also face discrimination and stigma, as well as being less likely to have children or grandchildren who can visit and help.

AARP has a page dedicated to the older LGBTQ community at aarp.org. Additionally, they offer many online tools for all older adults, like a retirement calculator that can help determine how much someone needs to be saving; a social security calculator; and a resource hub for all things Medicare.

With the rise of these specialized communities, they are able to age in place in a safe environment and also have access to services they need.

“It’s really the first generation of LGBTQ+ folks who are for the majority living their lives at some level of outness,” says Sherrill Wayland, the senior director of special initiatives and partnerships at SAGE, an advocacy group for LGBTQ+ elders. “As we think about retiring, potentially looking for retirement communities or assisted living, we want to make sure that we can continue being our authentic self and not have to re-closet.”

In partnership with the Human Rights Campaign, SAGE created the long-term care equality index (LEI). Hearing from 200 communities in 43 states, they surveyed non-discrimination and staff training, resident services and support, employee benefits and policies, resident and community engagement. The findings help elders as they research communities to spend their golden years, and each year the groups hope more communities will participate.

“We’re really encouraging these systems to not just raise a rainbow flag using Pride Month, but looking at the policies, participants, and procedures that really institutionalize what it means to be LGTQ+ welcoming and supportive,” Wayland says.

Sandra Newson is the vice president of resident services for Carrfour, a nonprofit affordable housing developer. One of their properties is The Residences at Equality Park in Wilton Manors, an LGBTQ+ community that opened in 2021 and shares a campus with The Pride Center.

“LGBT senior communities are very rare,” she says. “One of the challenges for a person who identifies as LGBTQ+ who is aging is feeling a sense of belonging and comfort in a traditional aging-in-place for a 55+ community is oftentimes faced with discrimination or hostility.”

Even the language in the application form might be a sign to an applicant that they are not welcoming, particularly to transgender or non-binary people or same-sex couples who want to live together. At The Residences, Newson says they’ve created an affirming environment with “zero tolerance for any behaviors that make someone feel less than part of the community,” from the application process to signage in the buildings, the groups they partner with and staff training.

One of the most popular programs is a monthly meditation workshop with Sunshine Cathedral, an LGBTQ+-affirming church that also hosts grief sessions when a resident passes away. Other activities include movie screenings, holiday parties and weekly gatherings. With many of their residents experiencing chronic illness — including HIV, mental health issues and disabilities —  due to a lack of access to health care in the past, counselors help connect them to community resources.

“You shouldn’t have to go back into the closet to feel safe,” Newson says.

The same model is in place at the LGBT Network. Kilmnick says that in traditional retirement homes, “there’s a lack or the LGBTQ community is completely invisible.”

In one focus group before opening, a woman shared that when she lost her partner of more than 30 years, she attended a bereavement group where other widows and widowers told her “that’s not the same thing.”

That does not happen at the LGBT Network. There, residents are treated to guest speakers, drag bingo, health programs, holiday celebrations, and other diverse programming where they can be themselves alongside their partners.

“We’ve had a number of seniors tell us that this is the first place that they ever lived in their entire life — they’re in their mid-60s, mid-70s — this is the first time ever in their entire life that they have felt they lived in a safe place where they could be themselves,” Kilmnick says. “That’s powerful. It’s so sad and so powerful, and yet it really just stresses the importance of these facilities and that we need more of them.”