Sex and intimacy are important elements of adult relationships, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. But, according to educator Marilyn Gugliucci of the University of New England in Biddeford, “when it comes to the older adult population, it is really important that ‘sex’ is defined more broadly.”
Many men and women remain deeply interested in sexuality as they age and find their golden years a time of new sexual freedom and renewed libido, Gugliucci said. “But the key generalization is that there is a depth of emotion that occurs as one ages that may become more important than physical performance.”
Gugliucci is just one of several presenters at the upcoming “ Symposium on Aging in the LGBT Community” on Saturday, April 22, and Sunday, April 23, at the Senator Inn and Spa in Augusta. The symposium is being organized and hosted by SAGE Maine, which provides support services and advocacy for older LGBT Mainers. The event is open to LGBT Mainers, their allies and the professionals who work with them.
Gugliucci serves on the SAGE Maine board and is a founding member. Her presentation, titled “Granny’s Got Her Groove On,” explores negative social bias toward sexual behaviors in older adults as well as survey data showing that, for many, sex remains important into old age, though its expression takes different forms.
For example, she said, for some older couples, physical closeness that includes cuddling, kissing and petting may be as satisfying as intercourse and other forms of sexual activity. For others, just sitting on the sofa and holding hands can take the place of more explicitly sexual behaviors.
The challenge, she said, is empowering all adults, including those in the LGBT community, to feel comfortable discussing, exploring and accepting new ways of expressing intimacy and love as their bodies change. She hopes her presentation, which includes humor and personal anecdotes as well as data and resources, will generate questions and stimulate conversation among those attending the symposium.
SAGE Maine Executive Director Douglas Kimmel said the event aims to bring older LGBT Mainers together from across the state to expand their social contacts, explore solutions to aging-related challenges they face and provide resources on topics including dating and intimacy, legal issues such as estate planning, access to safe housing and health services and opportunities for political advocacy at the local, state and national level.
“We also want to make SAGE more broadly known, at both the state and national level,” he said. The organization in Maine coordinates weekly and monthly drop-in centers at several locations, organizes group dinners and other activities, provides educational outreach to medical and social service providers and connects individuals with services and opportunities for advocacy.
SAGE Maine has also conducted several recent surveys pertaining to aging in Maine. The most recent examines attitudes among social service providers about interacting with LGBT Mainers. Kimmel will present the findings at the conference.
“The main message is, ‘You can’t tell by looking,’” Kimmel said. “Providers can’t always tell when their clients are LGBT, and we can’t tell by looking if they’re affirmative” — that is, if they are accepting and informed about working with clients who are LGBT.
“If you don’t know [a provider is ‘safe’]” Kimmell said, “you carry with you all those old fears, in some cases from the McCarthy era [about being identified as LGBT and being discriminated against].”
That can affect the way people ask for or accept available services, including personal counseling, medical care, in-home assistance and other support. LGBT-friendly providers can identify themselves by something as simple as displaying a rainbow flag or lapel pin.
“You would think providers would be sensitive to this issue, but they’re not always,” Kimmel said.
Adult nurse practitioner Cindy Leiffer, who practices at St. Joseph Healthcare in Bangor, recently attended an international medical conference in Amsterdam on transgender health and will be speaking at the Augusta symposium. Leiffer said a lack of sensitivity and awareness about LGBT issues is all too common in the medical world, especially affecting older transgender adults.
“Over the years there has been more acceptance of lesbian women and gay men,” she said, “but there is still a lot of discrimination and disinformation about transgender health.”
From the long-term effects of hormone therapy to the threat of prostate disease in transgender women or cervical cancer in transgender men, she said, medical providers are often unprepared to discuss important health issues with their older transgender patients. And transgender individuals may be the target of dismissive or disrespectful attitudes from medical office staff, she said, both in the waiting room and in the exam room.
“Someone may come in because they have an ear infection and encounter way too much curiosity about their genitals,” she said. The answer, Leiffer said, is a combination of providing education and sensitivity training to medical providers and the empowering transgender individuals to advocate on their own behalf.
Other sessions at the symposium will address legal planning, access to affordable housing and aging-in-place strategies for LGBT Mainers. The event also will feature HIV testing, an on-site 12-step meeting, a Saturday night dance and all meals. The cost for the two days ranges from $10 to $30, with room discounts for those who stay overnight. Scholarships are available.