Matile Rothschild and Joan Zimmerman lived more than a decade in their San Francisco home, in a quiet neighborhood near Lake Merced where they had a community of friends who were like family.
But in recent years that started to change as their friends retired and moved away – settling in cheaper areas outside the city or moving closer to family. The women began considering their own options, even checking out a retirement home in Portland, Ore., near Rothschild’s son.
“It was gorgeous up there, and I seriously considered it,” said Rothschild, 80, even as her partner shook her head with a grimace. “But I knew I’d stand out there.”
That Portland home, Zimmerman said, was “a straight place.” The assisted living home they finally moved into late last year – called Fountaingrove Lodge, tucked among the oak trees in Santa Rosa – is touted as the first continuing care center in the country geared specifically to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender seniors.
“You’d have to hide who you are at a straight place,” said Zimmerman, 77. “Everyone here (at Fountaingrove) is in the same boat. It’s like immediate family.”
Rothschild and Zimmerman are among the first generation of men and women who are entering old age after spending most, if not all, of their adult lives without hiding their sexual orientation.
Risks for gay, lesbian seniors
Gay seniors, studies show, often are at greater risk than their straight peers for depression and isolation, and the associated health problems, as they get older. Last year, a survey of gay seniors living in San Francisco – the first poll of its kind – found that 58 percent of LGBT men and women age 60 or older live alone, compared with just 25 percent of straight older adults.
Older gay men and women are less likely than straight seniors to have children to depend on, either financially or emotionally. They’re also far less likely to be married and often don’t have a long-term partner. Among gay men, many lost significant others and close friends during the worst years of the AIDS epidemic.
Anecdotally, advocates for gay seniors say they’ve heard stories of men and women who chose to hide their sexual orientation, after living most of their lives in the open, rather than face judgment or discrimination from the staff or residents of assisted living centers.
“LGBT adults face some unique challenges as they get older. Generally speaking, they don’t have the same support from biological family that non-LGBT seniors have,” said Seth Kilbourn, executive director of Openhouse, a San Francisco housing and social services nonprofit geared toward gay seniors. Openhouse plans to break ground by the end of this year on the city’s first affordable housing for gay seniors.
“LGBT seniors rely on the families of choice that they have built over decades,” Kilbourn said. “What we’re doing with these housing projects is working to strengthen those families of choice so, as LGBT folks get older, that community support will be there for them.”
Affordable housing in S.F.
The Openhouse project, called 55 Laguna, will include 110 units of affordable housing, with the first 40 set to become available at the end of 2015. The housing will be open to all low-income adults age 55 or older, gay or straight, but it will be marketed to the LGBT community.
Kilbourn and other advocates for gay seniors say centers such as 55 Laguna and Fountaingrove Lodge are long overdue. Already roughly 20,000 gay seniors age 60 or older live in San Francisco, and that number is expected to rise dramatically with the aging of Baby Boomers over the next few years.
Several cities around the country have low-income housing set aside for gay seniors, but there are very few places that provide not just housing, but varying degrees of support or health care.
Projects are in the works in several large cities around the country. The owners of Fountaingrove Lodge, who have an empire of assisted living centers throughout California, are considering opening a second LGBT-focused center in Palm Springs.
“Not a lot of mainstream (retirement) communities are prepared for diversity. I’ve had people tell me that they got asked, ‘Are you married? Do you have children?’ There are all these assumptions,” said Gena Jacob, senior marketing director at Fountaingrove Lodge. “When people come here, they don’t have to explain themselves. They don’t have to give their whole story. We all see it and understand it.”
The lodge is well suited to its name. Outside, it bears the stone and wood facade of a mountain resort, and the main “living room” is a high-ceilinged lounge with fireplaces and plush chairs and sofas, and wide windows that look out over the oak trees and a nearby golf course.
Next door to Fountaingrove is a separate dementia care center, plus several stand-alone cottages for more private quarters.
The home most definitely wasn’t built for low-income seniors. Monthly fees range from about $3,000 to $6,000, and residents pay a refundable entry fee of at least $300,000. The 64 apartments in the main building are all meant for independent living, with full kitchens, although residents can request some level of assisted care.
“Over time, I hope we will be talking about other affordable housing communities” like 55 Laguna, Kilbourn said. “In the meantime, thank goodness Fountaingrove is out there. It’s a different market than we’re looking at, but it’s an important segment of the community. There’s certainly a lot of demand for it.”
Not interested initially
Rothschild actually spent 30 years working with Openhouse to develop housing for LGBT adults and put together support programs for older gays and lesbians. And she said that as much as she is enjoying her new life at Fountaingrove, she misses San Francisco.
“I wish I could live in 55 Laguna,” she said. But she and Zimmerman have too much money to qualify for the housing.
Their new neighbor, Martin Devin, said he never intended to move into an LGBT-focused home. In fact, he found the idea unappealing when a friend first told him about Fountaingrove. “I wasn’t interested in a gay retreat,” he said with a laugh.
No uncomfortable questions
Eventually Devin, 71, got tired of the constant upkeep on his property in Occidental and knew it was time to simplify. He changed his mind about the “gay retreat” after visiting Fountaingrove, and after giving more thought to whether he’d fit in at a “straight” retirement home.
He imagined meeting other men and women – married couples, perhaps – and having to wonder if they were uncomfortable sharing a home with a gay man. He knew he’d have to field questions about grandchildren and marriage. He realized he’d probably have to come out all over again.
“I am who I am, and I pretty much always have been,” Devin said. “I’m sure I’m more comfortable here than I would be somewhere else.”
Erin Allday is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org