Merlene Davis: Upcoming conference targets aging fears in the LGBT community

Pat Ritz, left, is the primary caretaker for her partner Joan Wyzenbeek at their home in Lexington. She fears Wyzenbeek might not get a compassionate level of care from strangers at a nursing facility because of her sexual history.
Pat Ritz, left, is the primary caretaker for her partner Joan Wyzenbeek at their home in Lexington. She fears Wyzenbeek might not get a compassionate level of care from strangers at a nursing facility because of her sexual history. Lexington Herald-Leader

Pat Ritz speaks softly, urging the woman she has loved for nearly 40 years to eat more of the sandwich she has prepared for her lunch.

Ritz, 74, is the primary caretaker for her partner Joan Wyzenbeek, 84, who is now thin, frail and suffering with Alzheimer's disease.

Guests in the home walk past a chair lift along the stairs leading to the living room where Wyzenbeek lies in a hospital bed. A wheelchair is nearby, but Ritz says her partner hasn't been able to use it for several weeks.

Ritz brushes Wyzenbeek's hair to help her look her best for a photographer. She is a dedicated caretaker not only out of love, but also because she fears her partner might not receive a compassionate level of care from strangers.

Their relationship and their situation were the inspiration for an upcoming conference in Lexington targeting the maturing LGBT community. In its second year, the conference, hosted by Senior Pride Initiative, hopes to bring aging gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender people together with agencies and service providers who can help them age with dignity.

"The main issue is a lot of service providers all over the country say everyone is welcome to their services, but one size doesn't fit all," said Troy A. Johnson, director of Senior Pride Initiative.

For many aging members of the LGBTQ community, he said, isolation and a lack of community often leave them alone and hesitant to access mainstream aging services.

"Many who enter long-term care find themselves hiding their heart and history as they return to the closet out of fear of maltreatment," he said.

Johnson met Ritz and Wyzenbeek two years ago and he mentioned his idea for the conference. Wyzenbeek urged him to hurry up and do it because she was almost 83.

When gays age, they tend to isolate themselves. Johnson said about 70 percent are living alone and dying alone, many abandoned by their families when they came out of the closet.

One survey suggested that 78 percent of LGBT adults in assisted living facilities are not open about their sexual orientation, fearing repercussions from the staff.

Ritz has an example. When Wyzenbeek was restless at night after hip replacement surgery, a sitter was called in at the hospital to watch over her while Ritz went home to sleep.

"She shows up holding a Bible," Ritz said. "She asked if we were related and I said, 'sort of.' I was afraid she would be against us, that she might be from a conservative church that says we are an abomination. I don't want anyone to mistreat Joan."

The women met in 1975 when Wyzenbeek was a student pastor at a Unitarian Church in Cincinnati and Ritz was the wife of the choir director.

"I fell in love," Ritz said. "It was a strong physical attraction and emotional attachment. It was a bit of a scandal even for Unitarians."

Wyzenbeek had spent 30 days in jail when she was 18 because of "immoral relations" with another girl, according to a newspaper account, Ritz said.

After undergoing psychiatric treatments, Wyzenbeek was "cured." She got married when she was in her 30s and had two children.

"The cure didn't last," Ritz said, laughing. Both women are divorced and have had good relationships with their former spouses and their children.

They would love to get married, Ritz said, but they've only lived in Florida, Ohio and Kentucky, states that do not recognize marriage equality.

"When Joan's ex-husband died, she got a raise in Social Security because they had been married 10 years," Ritz said. "That helps a lot. When she passes, I will be in greatly reduced circumstances."

Ritz said people make judgments about them because of physical sex.

"That's history now," she said. "What's left is commitment."

Ritz has had some great success with the agencies that are helping her partner, but she would like to see other groups have diversity training. "Alzheimer's Association has been really helpful and Hospice (of the Bluegrass) has been a blessing."

The first conference was held last year at the Senior Citizens Center. Nearly 100 people attended.

It allowed the LGBT community to see which agencies were allies.

This year, the conference, "Growing Older — Growing Bolder," will be held on Nov. 14 at Women's Club of Central Kentucky, 214 North Broadway. Johnson hopes to have closer to 200 people attend this time.

The purpose is to give people like Ritz a chance to be around other gays in the same age bracket experiencing the same problems. Johnson said they can expect quality speakers, a catered lunch, LGBTQ-friendly vendors and agents, and "a day chocked full of good information and fun."

It is sponsored in part by a grant from JustFundKy.

The Senior Pride Initiative is a committee of Lexington Fairness that is dedicated to helping people in the LGBTQ community age with pride and dignity. The initiative offers the annual conference, annual cultural training for service providers in the aging industry, and aims to increase awareness of services available to the aging LGBT community.

At the conference, the LGBT community "will be able to relax and be themselves," Johnson said, "and maybe make some good friends. We hope allies and service providers come and leave with a new understanding and advocate for change and more inclusiveness."

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