SAGE and the Diverse Elders Coalition: Bridging the Gap
“The fabric of our country is changing. The United States is becoming increasingly older and more diverse in its racial, ethnic, [and LGBTQ+] composition,” says Elder advocate Aaron Tax. “By 2050, more than 17 million U.S. older adults from diverse communities will make up 50% of all older Americans.” This changing cultural landscape means that advocacy on behalf of aging and marginalized groups is more important than ever.
The Diverse Elders Coalition (or the DEC) has been at the forefront of the movement for elder advocacy for more than a decade. The DEC is “a leading national advocacy coalition of six organizations that represent the interests and concerns of racially and ethnically diverse older adults and LGBTQ+ older people,” says Tax. “By working together, we’re improving aging for our communities nationwide.”
The six organizations that make up the DEC represent many marginalized communities, including racial and ethnic groups like AAPI, Black, Hispanic, Indian and Southeast Asian people as well as the LGBTQ+ community. Tax is the Director of Advocacy at SAGE, which has been advocating on behalf of LGBTQ+ elders since 1978. Tax explains, “We build welcoming communities and keep our issues in the national conversation to ensure a fulfilling future for all LGBTQ+ people.”
Many people who work within the Diverse Elders Coalition are elders themselves. Donald M. Bell is one such person. Self-described as a 72-year-old, cisgender, pro-feminist, gay or SGL man of African, Indigenous, and Scots-Irish roots, Bell is also a father, grandfather, and third-generation Chicago Southsider. After a rewarding career as an educator, Bell has begun a “post-retirement career of advocacy for the aging community in general, and the LGBTQ+ aging community in particular.”
“My entry into LGBTQ+ elder activism was predicated on my entering this stage of life,” Bell explains. “My lifelong commitment to social activism was a result of being a five-year-old black boy in 1955 when the body of Emmett Till was returned to Chicago from Money, Mississippi, and I learned my first public lesson of the cost of having black skin.”
Every individual has a history and identity that makes their needs unique. “I have not lived a siloed life around one issue, but at the intersection of several issues,” says Bell. “Mine, in particular, have been the issues of race, class, and sexual orientation and gender identity. It is most disappointing to me that as an LGBTQ+ elder I have now grown into the two additional issues of ageism and ableism.”
Acknowledging the intersectional identities of the elders for whom it advocates is vital to the mission of the DEC. “Older adults who are racially and ethnically diverse…and/or LGBTQ+ are much more likely to live in poverty than white, heterosexual, and cisgender older Americans,” says Tax. “These individuals have suffered from a lifetime of discrimination due to different cultures, identities, languages and customs, leaving many without proper community support systems, in poor health, and financially insecure.”
Bell spoke to the same issue: “The prevailing eldercare systems that exist in the United States are not prepared to understand, welcome, or support the lived experiences of LGBTQ+ people at this stage of life. Elders in the LGBTQ+ community have been faced with a particularly insidious form of heterosexism which results in silencing, and the unavailability of welcoming and culturally competent services and accommodations. As a result, many elders have to go ‘back into the closet’ to negotiate the issues of their everyday survival.”
Of course, 2020 provided a unique set of challenges for elder advocacy. “[O]ur expertise [at SAGE] was put to the test during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Tax explains. “LGBTQ+ elders are, and continue to be, particularly vulnerable to the health risks of COVID-19. LGBTQ+ older adults also face greater risks from social isolation that can directly impact their health and well-being.” Among other things, SAGE combatted elder isolation through a program called SAGEConnect. “[This program] matches LGBTQ+ elders with volunteer callers to combat social isolation. To date, we’ve made 526 matches with 600 volunteers and 440 elders, with nearly 3,000 minutes of calls.”
There are many aspects of elder care and advocacy that require a financial investment. “We believe it’s a moral mandate for the investment in eldercare to include specific investments for equitable access in care and services for racially and ethnically diverse older adults and LGBTQ+ elders,” says Tax. The Diverse Elders Coalition recently “submitted a proposal seeking $450 million from the Biden-Harris Administration. The funds would be used over eight years to support a series of initiatives grounded in the specific realities and needs of diverse and LGBTQ+ older adult communities [like] food insecurity, cultural competency training, cyber education, virtual programming to assist with social isolation, and more.”
If elder care and advocacy is a cause that resonates with you, one of the best ways to get involved is by donating to an organization like SAGE or the Diverse Elders Coalition. It is imperative that we support those without whom we would not have the rights that we do today. If financial support is not possible for you, it’s just as helpful to raise awareness in your social circles and make sure that your representatives know that you support the policies being advocated for by organizations like the DEC. It is past time to do make Donald Bell’s dream of “eliminat[ing] the issues of age as dividers in the LGBTQ+ community” a reality.