Aging Back in the Closet 

Lesbian and gay seniors in long-term care facilities face subtle — and sometimes outright — discrimination. Yes, it even happens in the liberal Bay Area.

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"I was amazed," said Cooley. "Residents of a skilled nursing facility don't go traveling about on their own. Typically they're too frail, or require a nurse."

At the time of McDonald's first visit, there was no room at Chaparral. But he continued to visit Cooley to inquire if any beds had become available. Each time Cooley shook his head. McDonald's name was low on the waiting list. After each visit from McDonald, however, Cooley would approach the facility's chief financial officer and ask if they could make this one exception. But with the state's budget cuts, another Medi-Cal resident would cost them money.

"After a while my administrator and the CFO began to see that this particular case mattered to me," said Cooley. "My CFO greeted me one morning with, 'How do you like surprises?' He told me I could call 'my gentleman' and let him know that we had a bed for him."

McDonald had come to Chaparral on the recommendation of River Lebow, the volunteer from Lavender Seniors. As a hospice nurse, Lebow has made rounds at various long-term care facilities and thought Chaparral would be a good place for McDonald. Dan Ashbrook agrees; he refers gay seniors there because it's a facility that's welcoming of this population.

"This agency is pretty competent and they're showing they're making a commitment," said Ashbrook.

Since arriving at Chaparral in late July, McDonald has adjusted well to life there, says Cooley. But he says that McDonald has grown more lethargic since he first met him. So Cooley makes sure the activities department has opera and symphonies, as well as art books and magazines, available for McDonald. He nudges him out of bed and reminds him that he is more cognizant and physically able than most residents and that he should take advantage of the life he still has.

Best of all, Cooley says McDonald is no longer "particularly fearful or secretive about being gay." McDonald says he still tends to avoid the topic so as to not make others uncomfortable, but that with certain people — like Cooley — he feels at ease talking about his sexual orientation.

"I think it gives him a sense of security knowing that I'm around," said Cooley. "It doesn't matter how amazing a nursing facility is, residents still need an advocate looking out for them."

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