The backyard is where Cliff Shockney’s late partner Gregg Anthony Kerley — known by friends as Tony — once held church gatherings and other social events. At 72, Shockney is looking for new friends and a companion. (Sean Havey for California Dream)
After Losing a Partner, a Search for Companionship
Older LGBT adults are more likely to be single and childless than heterosexual seniors. Advocates say more needs to be done for this group to help stave off loneliness.
“You ain’t lived till you been caught up by the police for being a queer.”
Red Jordan Arobateau leans back from the lunch table and props his cane against it. The 75-year-old is dining with a crew of transgender seniors that get together once a month. Today they’re trading war stories.
Rafi Simanton says he was arrested three times as a political activist in the ’90s.
Cliff Shockney poses with late partner Gregg Anthony Kerley — known to friends as Tony — at a wedding shortly before his 2011 death. “It’s the best picture of both of us together. I don’t know what tickled us so much,” Shockney says. (Sean Havey for California Dream)
For Felicia Elizondo, that’s small potatoes. She’s been fighting alongside other trans women since the Compton’s Cafeteria riot in San Francisco in 1966, three years before the better known police brawl at the Stonewall Inn, a club catering to the LGBT community in New York City’s Greenwich Village.
Andrea Horne, another diner, weighs in from the far end of the table, “It was trans women of color that started the whole (expletive),” she says. “There would be no LGBT without us.”
They’re at Openhouse, a subsidized apartment building in the historically queer Haight district. It’s one of California’s few rental options explicitly for older LGBT adults.
Demand for these spaces is growing as the first wave of seniors to have lived through the AIDS epidemic seeks supportive housing and medical care. Advocates say the need for more LGBT-friendly facilities should be factored into California’s master plan for aging.
“LGBTQ seniors are more likely to live alone, and more likely to not have children,” said Marcy Adelman, the housing advocate who founded the nonprofit behind Openhouse. “It’s something the state and counties need to focus on, to provide programming to reduce isolation. “
Living Arrangements by Age, 2016
Seniors were far more likely to live alone and in group quarters with age, according to recent census data. The percentage of older Americans living in family households shrunk from almost three-quarters among those aged 65 to 74 to less than half for those 85 and older, perhaps due to widowhood and a lower rate of remarriage.
Living in group quarters* Living alone in a household Living with family in a household Living with nonfamily in a household
Total U.S. population (%)
Age 65 and older
Age 65 to 74
Age 75 to 84
Age 85 and older
Source: U.S. Census Bureau; 2016 American Community Survey, 1-year estimates
* Major types of group quarters are adult correctional facilities, juvenile facilities, nursing facilities/skilled nursing facilities, other health care facilities/residential schools for people with disabilities, college/university student housing, military quarters/military ships, and other noninstitutional facilities.
In California, where queer rights are ingrained in the state’s cultural fabric, many LGBT seniors benefit from stronger social support networks than their counterparts elsewhere. Experts say that perk could extend their lifespans, if properly leveraged.
Cliff Shockney, 72, has gone out of his way to seek those kinds of connections in Sacramento. He’s been living alone since his partner of 29 years died in 2011.
He says it’s been difficult to find seniors with shared experiences.
“In the gay community, there traditionally has been an emphasis on being young and attractive and sexually active — older people were kind of invisible,” he said. “If you don’t get out there and do something … it’s real easy to just stay in your own little world.”
LGBT and Living Alone
More than 431,800 Californians over age 50 — about 3.5% — identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual. Aging LGBT adults are more likely to live alone than heterosexual seniors, according to a recent health survey.
Age 50 to 64
Age 65 and older
Source: 2015-16 California Health Interview Survey, The Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law
There are roughly 2.4 million older LGBT adults in the U.S., and that number is expected to double by 2030, according to The Williams Institute at UCLA.
A 2018 AARP survey found three quarters of LGBT people over 45 are concerned about having enough support as they age, and more than half say they’d have to hide their identities to safely access senior living facilities.
Shockney says he left Indiana for California to live more freely as a gay man, but now he’s far away from most of his relatives. He’s trying to figure out who will take care of him if his health turns south, now that his partner Gregg Anthony Kerley— known by friends as Tony— is gone.
Kerley was the social butterfly of the pair, said Shockney, a mild-mannered pianist and composer.
“If we went to a show, like a movie or at a theater, and it’s a comedy and people aren’t laughing … [Tony] would laugh this infectious laugh, and it was loud,” he said. “And people would be so tickled hearing him laugh that they’d start laughing, and then they’d enjoy the show.”
They developed a tight-knit group of friends in Sacramento, often hosting potlucks in their co-owned home.
Kerley, who was HIV positive, died of liver cancer eight years ago, on a sick bed in the living room. Shockney still lives there, surrounded by art and furniture they collected together.
“It did feel very empty for a long time,” he said. “It still feels empty at some times. But I like the house so much.”
Now 72, Cliff Shockney has worked as a pianist, church organist and composer for most of his life. He says LGBT-friendly senior living facilities are important, but they wouldn’t interest him unless the rooms had space for a piano. (Sean Havey for California Dream)
A few years after Kerley died, Shockney started searching for gay-friendly places to meet new people. He found the Wisdom Project, a social group that meets monthly for a catered meal and entertainment.
But it’s been difficult to find anyone his age who is interested in dating.
“I would like to share my life with someone really special,” he said. “And as I get older, it’s not real fun ... the clock is ticking.”
A photo depicting a young Cliff Shockney at the piano leans against a living room chair. (Sean Havey for California Dream)
Paul Nash, a gerontologist at the University of Southern California who focuses on ageism and discrimination, said older LGBT adults often feel marginalized in clubs and other public spaces frequented by younger groups.
He said seniors who go out of their way to find companions — be they close friends or romantic partners — can combat chronic loneliness, which some experts say poses as much of a threat to health as obesity.
But not all connections are created equal.
“There are different types of social networks, and what we see is some are limited,” Nash said. “The key is having a confidante. When you don’t have that level of emotional satisfaction, you’re not going to have that protection.”
In addition, research shows this population suffers unique mental health challenges due to traumatic experiences such as living in the closet, facing discrimination or losing loved ones to AIDS. A University of Washington study found that these adults have higher rates of disability, depression and loneliness and are more likely to smoke and binge-drink than heterosexuals of similar ages.
Nash pointed out that HIV positive LGBT seniors are suffering some unexpected medical complications due to aggressive antiretroviral drugs they took decades ago. In assisted living facilities, they may require special care that staff don’t know how to provide.
That’s why places like Openhouse, in addition to providing needed social outlets, are also offering cultural competency training to help home care providers and senior organizations better serve the LGBT population.
Executive director Karyn Skultety says she’s worried about what will happen to her tenants when they start to need more support than the complex can provide.
“A nursing home is the last place they want to be,” she said. “We’ve got to take the existing aging system and figure out how to make it work for this group of people.”