By Nicole Pesce
Printed in the NY Daily News on November 16
There are more than 70 senior centers serving elder residents in Queens — but only one is a safe haven openly embracing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender adults.
“LGBT seniors have always been a part of every community, but people have just now started becoming aware of them,” says John Nagel, Director of Senior Action in a Gay Environment (SAGE) in Jackson Heights.
“Many of them have not come out to their community — or even their families — because they have been afraid,” says Nagel. “But they are here , and it’s our job to make the needs of LGBT seniors more visible.”
SAGE was launched by the Queens Community House, a human services organization aiding residents of all ages with child care, housing assistance and free meals in 11 centers across the borough.
They realized the need for a program serving LGBT seniors 15 years ago, first gathering in an Astoria church basement in 1996 before moving to Jackson Heights in 2000.
Today, 700 seniors across Queens come to SAGE for discussion groups, wellness and fitness classes, game days and field trips. The community mailing list has 1,200 seniors.
“Socialization in elder adults leads to better overall health,” says Nagel. “This is a place where they can socialize comfortably with other seniors — and more importantly, other gay seniors — on a regular basis and discuss issues in their community and the greater world at large.”
The NYC Department of Aging reports that in 2009, almost one-third of New Yorkers 65 and older, and about one-half of those 85 and older, were living alone, leaving them at greater risk of poverty and depression.
Yet twice as many LGBT seniors live alone than heterosexual ones, and they are four times more likely to be childless, which puts them at a greater risk of social isolation and a lack of caregiving.
Considering LGBT adults often face barriers such as discrimination and limited access to services and community engagement, this often-overlooked population becomes even more vulnerable.
Or, in the case of SAGE’s membership, the people become even more determined to empower themselves.
“After I retired, I realized that this could be the opportunity for me to live a second life,” says Rick Suarez, 64, from Astoria, sitting in SAGE’s creative writing workshop on a recent Friday.
“I was looking for people — gay people — to interact with, and I had never written anything before. I could barely write a business letter. So I gave this a shot, and it’s been wonderful,” he says. “I never knew that I could write, and now I’m writing stories!”
“It’s very liberating and comfortable here,” agrees Connie, 69, who like many members prefers not to give her full name. “We are alone. Many of us don’t have children or grandchildren, so we care for one another.”
The SAGE members meet Monday through Friday in the Clubhouse, a common room with cheerful yellow walls, potted plants and rainbow flags decorated by regular William Sheehan, 66, from Elmhurst, who was an interior designer before he retired.
“I was going a little stir-crazy in my apartment,” he says, “and I was suffering from clinical depression. But this place gives me an opportunity to continue doing something that I love to do. We redecorate the clubhouse every season.
“We also have a walking club, and a dining club, and once a year we go to Fire Island ... they really put on a number of amazing programs,” he says, reclining on the loveseat in the corner. Another five members (including Rick and Connie from the creative writing class) are playing Uno at the card table while Nagel lays out lunch: a couple of pizzas, coffee and tea, plus bowls of raisins and prunes (“You’ve always got to put out prunes,” he cracks.)
Of course, SAGE isn’t a completely safe haven. Like more than 105 senior centers across the city, it was in danger of closing earlier this year during the statewide budget crunch.
“We have some funding, but we’ve seen it dry up over the past two years,” says Nagel. “We can always use donations — and volunteers. Right now, I’m a staff of one, besides our instructors who donate their time.”
The aging LGBT community shudders to think about what they would do without SAGE.
“It’s too scary to think about,” says Sheehan. “This is my family. I don’t have any immediate family anymore. I’m here five days a week ... I don’t know what I would do. I don’t even want to think about it. ”
HOW TO HELP
The SAGE clubhouse runs Monday through Friday from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. at 74-09 37th Ave. in Jackson Heights. To make a donation or volunteer, contact director John Nagel at (718) 533-6459 or
BY THE NUMBERS
- 70+ senior centers in Queens
- 1 (SAGE) specifically serves LGBT older adults
- 700 Queens seniors rely on SAGE
- LGBT seniors are two times likely to live alone
- LGBT seniors are four times likely not to have children
- $75 covers one class or activity at SAGE