Growing Older and Stronger: SAGE Turns 40

by Jill Gleeson

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday May 28, 2018

In 1978, the year SAGE was founded in New York City, the fight for LGBTQ civil rights was in its early days. Discrimination was rampant -- few could live out -- and marriage equality was barely a dream.

But a handful of forward-thinking LGBTQ people recognized that if being queer in 1970s America was fraught with difficulty and dangers, being older and queer in 1970s America was doubly so. LGBTQ elders often lived invisible lives of poverty and isolation, forgotten even by members of their own community. SAGE, first known as Senior Action in a Gay Environment and now simply by its acronym, changed that, increasing the quality of life for older LGBTQ people.

Off and Running

From the beginning, one of SAGE's biggest goals was to alleviate the social isolation LGBTQ elders often experience, which studies have shown can increase the risk of conditions like heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.

"People don't always think of isolation as a health issue," explains Michael Adams, SAGE's executive director, "but the fact is that social isolation causes more health challenges than moderate cigarette smoking and it is a huge issue among LGBT elders."

A year after its inception SAGE instituted the "Friendly Visitor" program, the first of its kind in the country, which paired volunteers with older LGBTQ people to ease their loneliness. In 1984, the organization opened the country's only senior LGBTQ drop-in center and eight years later launched a network of affiliates (there are now locations in 20 states), aimed at helping older queer people not just survive, but thrive.

Ruthie, 60, who lives in Manhattan, uses the services of the Sage Center Harlem. She says she worries about isolation and depression most, but finds good times and fellowship during the hot nutritional lunches SAGE serves daily. "SAGE keeps me motivated and I enjoy their meals!" she notes. "I'm more positive about growing older now because I don't have to do it alone."

Here and Now

To address what Adams calls "the lack of connections across generations in LGBT communities" SAGE has instituted more recent programs like mentoring and SAGE Table, which brings together LGBTQ people of all ages to forge friendships over bread breaking.

Other initiatives include the organization's National LGBT Elder Hotline (1-888-234-SAGE) to aid those struggling with the mental health issues that often the result of enduring a lifetime of discrimination. SAGEPositive provides a crucial support system for LGBTQ elders who are HIV positive; statistics show that more than 50 percent of Americans who are living with HIV are 50 or older.

And then there is SAGECare, a two-year-old program which gives health and housing providers the training and tools they need to compassionately and effectively care for LGBTQ seniors. According to Adams, "more than 67,000 LGBT elders across the country have benefited by receiving more respectful care."

The organization is now tackling the housing crisis older members of the LGBTQ community face, a result of both discrimination and soaring housing costs. SAGE has already partnered with HELP USA and developers BFC to build two affordable LGBTQ-friendly housing developments in New York City.

On May 16, National Honor Our LGBT Elders Day, SAGE kicked off "Care Can't Wait," a campaign designed to enlist supporters in the fight against the current administration's measures to legalize discrimination based on religious preference. If successful, it would have a disastrous effect on older queer people, since most elder care is provided through religiously affiliated organizations.

It's all part of SAGE's core mission to improve the lives of older members of the LGBTQ community, a mission that's still succeeding 40 years after the organization's founding, according to Michael Feuerstein. Feuerstein, who is 77, lives in Manhattan and patronizes the Edie Windsor SAGE Center.

"SAGE is my home and my family," he says. "When I was recently in the hospital, my SAGE friends and SAGE staff visited me and took care of me. I come for dinner. I come for karaoke. I do all the programs I possibly can! Older LGBT people are vibrant, strong, and resilient. We love to have fun. SAGE makes it easier."

Jill Gleeson is a travel and adventure journalist based in the Appalachians of Central Pennsylvania. Find her on Facebook and Twitter at @gopinkboots.