Growing old when gay

by Gillian King

  • See a slide show of resources older people within the GLBT community can go to.

The process of growing older can prove to be difficult for many people, especially when it comes to navigating government benefits and retirement. However, for individuals such as Pamela Mayne the process can prove to be especially nerve-racking. “It has been a harrowing experience to get what we are entitled to,” Mayne said.

Mayne, 64, and her domestic partner, Ann, have had to put a lot of hard work and energy into ensuring their benefits are set up the way they need them to be. Hard work that legally married couples generally don’t have to worry about. Their problems are rooted in the fact that they are a lesbian couple, and despite being together for the last 37 years many organizations don’t recognize their relationship.

The simple act of getting on each other’s insurance proved to be trying for the couple. After Mayne’s partner retired, Mayne wanted to make sure the primary and secondary coverage for their health insurance was correct. “When I called Medicare, no one knew what to do because they didn’t recognize domestic partners,” Mayne said.

Medicare isn’t the only place where the two have run into trouble. When Mayne retired, she had to take her retirement in one lump sum instead of monthly payments. “It would have been nice to have monthly payments,” Mayne said, “but if something were to happen and I died, the benefits would die with me. I couldn’t leave it to Ann like I could if we were a married couple.”

These types of experiences aren’t unique to this couple. According to Jo Merrill, a doctoral student in counseling psychology and a teacher in the Gender Studies program at the University of Utah, couples across the nation are having similar experiences. Merrill did a qualitative study of aging experiences of older lesbian couples and found some noticeable trends.

“Some of the unique concerns for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual) couples are legal invisibility, right of inheritance and social security benefits,” Merrill said. She added these problems mostly stem from domestic partnerships not being legally recognized, and marriage not being available for these individuals. Without some sort of legal or familial bond, Merrill says many of these couples feel their benefits are never really secured, no matter how much money they pay to make sure they are.

Trying to secure benefits is a familiar task for Mayne. She and her partner set up living wills so that if anything were to happen to either of them their money and property would go where they want it. Since the state of Utah doesn’t recognize domestic partnerships, the process of drawing up the documents was much more expensive and time consuming. When comparing the process of her setting up a living will as opposed to her married, heterosexual daughter Mayne said, “It cost three times as much for us because there is no legal relationship so there are a lot more papers to sign.”

The process of setting up things like insurance and living wills can be difficult for LGBT seniors to navigate, but luckily they are not alone. The Utah Pride Center holds monthly events for SAGE Utah to help individuals navigate the unfamiliar territory of aging within the gay community. According to Jennifer Nuttall, Director of Adult Programs at the Utah Pride Center, SAGE (services and advocacy for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender elders) offers social avenues, workshops and educational opportunities that seniors in the LGBT community would otherwise not have. They work closely with Salt Lake County Aging Services and address issues that are unique to LGBT seniors.

More than anything Nuttall says that through SAGE individuals can receive the support they are in need of. “It is important to have people that are supportive and affirming of who you are,” Nuttall said. She mentioned that other groups, such as grief groups, aren’t always supportive to people living LGBT lifestyles. Individuals feel like they need to hide information about themselves and their sexuality, which isn’t helpful during trying times, such as attempting to cope with the death of a partner. At SAGE events these individuals don’t need to hide who they are, they can make connections and get the support they need.

The Utah Pride Center works not only to provide support for individuals, but also to give them access to workshops where they can learn things such as how to best organize their legal documents. Mayne knows firsthand how difficult this can be, as she has been running into problems as long as she has been with Ann. Her partner already had five children and was pregnant when they got together, and they raised the children together. While Mayne considers all of her partner’s children as her own, the government does not. One year when filing taxes it made more sense for Mayne to claim the children as dependents than for her partner to. They did the research to make sure they could legally do it, and filled out all of the needed forms. “Then we got audited,” Mayne said. She took in the IRS brochure that stated they could legally file their taxes this way. “They let us do it, but made it clear that we shouldn’t try to again,” she said.

Because of these kind of difficulties, some couples take extreme measures to get legal custody of children. “Utah doesn’t allow (same sex) couples to adopt, so often couples will move out of state for a couple years to get residency in another state where adoptions are allowed,” Merrill said. She said then the couples could move back and have the adoption upheld by the state of Utah. This option is not a convenient one for many couples. Couples must have the necessary funds to be able to pick up and move to another state for a couple years, something that many don’t have at their disposal.

Moving out of the state to adopt children wasn’t the only measure Merrill discovered people were taking to ensure legal family bonds. Some elderly couples take advantage of a loophole in the system and one will adopt the other. “Two of the couples I spoke with were in the process of adoption,” Merrill said. She said if one partner could prove that the other was dependent on him, or her, for care then the dependent partner could be legally adopted. “It shows the subversive moves couples have to make out of necessity,” Merrill said. She spoke to one couple that had recently completed the adoption process. The couple told her they finally felt their partnership couldn’t be dissolved because they had been given legal status as a family.

Legal status as a family would make life a lot easier for Mayne and her partner. “We don’t even qualify for a family pass at the recreation center in Bountiful,” Mayne said. When they tried to purchase one they were turned down.

Not getting passes to the local recreation center may be inconvenient, but not compared to future expenses. “When setting up our finances, we decided to get long-term care insurance,” Mayne said. She has researched prices at assisted living facilities and found results that were unfavorable to her situation. She said for the first person to enter a facility it would cost $2,600 a month, and then for the spouse it would be $600. Since her and her partner aren’t legally spouses, they would have to pay $2,600 each, something she would have a much more difficult time affording, which is what prompted her to get an insurance plan to cover the expenses.

Making sure expenses will be covered and paperwork is set up the way it should be is something that many LGBT couples believe can’t be put off until retirement age. Nyhra Snyder, 22, and Ashley Cordova, 23, have already begun to get their affairs in order. They have both made each other the beneficiaries of their life insurance policies in the event that anything may happen. They too have been faced with discrimination though. “When I was filling out my life insurance policy at work I made Ashley the beneficiary and put her down as my life partner, but the HR manager changed it to ‘friend’ even though there was a life partner option on the form,” Snyder said. She recognizes that her generation has less discrimination than previous ones though. “I’m just grateful for what people have done before us,” she said.

Even with the inconveniences and discrimination, Merrill says many elderly LGBT couples say things are better than they used to be. Whether it is from changes in society or changes due to age it is difficult to tell. “Most participants felt more accepted as they got older,” Merrill said. She noted this might be a result of the heterosexual community desexualizing older people.

Mayne agrees that in most cases people are more accepting. She also said as she ages she doesn’t let things bother her as much, and she has become less hostile toward unfriendly comments. “We kind of ignore it,” Mayne said, “plus our hearing is getting worse.”