'Aging Gayfully' class a road map for the LGBTQI community

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The late actress Bette Davis has been credited with the old adage: “Old age ain’t no place for sissies.”

If you’re part of the LGBTQ community, growing older can be even more challenging, with common issues such as loneliness and loss multiplied by a reluctance to access services that could help ease the pain.

“We feel we’re unworthy, and we are used to hiding,” said Gary “Buz” Hermes of Sonoma, who works as an LGBTQ aging consultant. “If you were bullied in school by your peers, you may not feel comfortable going to a yoga class or a life experience writing class at a senior center. Will I be judged and intimidated?”

In his “Aging Gayfully” class at the Finley Center in Santa Rosa, Hermes uses several tools he’s developed — such as reflection, forgiveness, gratitude and humor — to help empower LGBT elders with optimal aging strategies and to encourage them to access senior services. The discussions are aimed at helping people transition into their final act.

“The class is a safe place to be yourself, to share and not be judged,” said Hermes, whose class draws about 20 people a week ranging from ages 60 to 80.

Betty Herbst, 72, enjoys the class because she feels she is coming home to her “tribe.” Herbst moved with her partner from Ohio to Petaluma a little over a year ago in order to live in a community that was more progressive and accepting.

“We have automatic permission to disclose about our LGBTQI selves, and we can be understood,” she said. “This group has a wonderful sense of family. I get a sense of camaraderie and a sense of belonging.”

The 18-week class started in the fall of 2017 as part of the Santa Rosa Junior College’s Older Adults Program and is now in its fifth semester.

Participants can drop in at any time during the class, which currently meets from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursdays through May 23 at the Finley Center’s Person Senior Wing. Although the class is free, there is a $3 use fee for the facility.

“We set the chairs up in a circle, and I throw out a theme or bring in a guest speaker,” Hermes said in an interview at Brew Coffeehouse in Santa Rosa. “We’ve had a therapist talk about aging, providers from aging services and folks from the Council on Aging.”

Hermes, who is 80, belongs to the Silent Generation that came of age during the 1950s, when the culture valued normalcy above all else and didn’t talk about sexuality, let alone a range of sexuality.

He moved to San Francisco after college, where he discovered a gay underground, but at that time, homosexuality was still considered a sin, a crime and a mental illness, three strikes that left his generation permanently scared and scarred.

Survival instincts

“We learned to be vigilant, and our survival instinct to hide persists,” he said. “It wasn’t until I was in my late 40s that I began to really accept my sexual orientation with a sense of pride and began to serve as an advocate for my LGBT community.”

Over the years, Hermes has gained insights into healing modalities through his work with caregivers during the AIDS pandemic and his later work with LGBT seniors and senior housing.

Along the way, he started researching ideas from the “Conscious Aging” movement.

“It started in the 1980s, when the lifespan was extended,” he said. “It’s about, ‘How can I find purpose and meaning for these added years?’ ”

Reaching out to his own community became easier in 2015, when Sonoma County Adult and Aging Services received a grant to improve outreach and services to LGBTQ seniors that funded workshops to address their needs and helped train the staff of three senior centers.

“We’re the second biggest community (of LGBTQ) in the nation after San Francisco,” said Hermes, citing statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2008 American Community Survey. “A lot of San Franciscans moved up here to commute, and now they are aging.”

“Aging Gayfully” is set up more like a casual discussion group than a class. Throughout the semester, Hermes leads participants in discussions that encourage people to reflect on their past, cope with their limitations and look forward to the gifts age can bring.

At the beginning, Hermes asks folks to talk about where they are in the process of aging, especially any negative images about aging and being LGBTQ they may have internalized.

“In our culture, aging is considered a disease or a failure,” he said. “So we may feel devalued in two different ways — we’re old, and we’re a minority that’s been devalued already.”

He then helps them reflect on their hopes and their fears and evaluate what parts of their life are fulfilling and what could be tweaked. Along the way, he urges them to let go of any lingering regrets and resentments,

“It’s important to forgive yourself — we all drank too much, and some used drugs,” he said. “There’s also a lot of discussion about the coming out process. How did it happen? How did it feel? It’s still an issue for many people.”

Then he asks participants to acknowledge mentors they’ve had, explore the common themes woven into the tapestry of their lives and celebrate their own personality traits. These exercises help boost feelings of self-worth.

“Whether we’re gay or straight, it’s important that we acknowledge what we accomplished,” he said. “I tell everyone, ‘If you’re still here, that’s an achievement.’ ”

Age-related challenges

Then he asks the group to look at the tough issue of loss — “health is a big one” — and helps them prepare for age-related challenges in the future by suggesting ways they can adapt.

If people are suffering from loss of sight, hearing or reflexes, for example, they can get an eye exam and coated eyeglasses for night driving or a hearing aid. AARP gives a class on how to drive safely despite slower reflexes, he said.

Then the class navigates through the thorny issue of mortality, from the details of their memorial and where their remains go to appointing people to make medical decisions and pay bills.

“These decisions are hard for my peers, because a lot of us don’t have family left, or the families are estranged,” he said. “And a lot of us don’t have children.”

Finally, the class ends on an upbeat note, with a discussion of how to redefine life and contribute to society while making the most of what time they have left.

“There’s a lot being written about how we’re at a crossroads, and our culture has no more horizons, other than outer space,” he said. “Now it’s about collisions between cultures. Elders need to step up and use our wisdom and make sure we’re not just relegated to the porch.”

Since the elder LGBT community has already proven their creativity and resilience, especially through the AIDS epidemic, Hermes believes they are in a good position to wield influence.

“Buz has been concentrating on how we can make a difference,” Herbst said. “It’s helping ourselves into our later years, but it’s also helping ourselves to help others in new ways.”

Many of the participants take the class multiple times, because they are always learning something new.

“Every time a topic is discussed, there are different aspects that are brought up,” said Herbst, who has taken the class multiple times. “Today we learned a lot about how humor can be motivational and healthful, and certainly seniors would benefit from that.”

“Each time I give a class, I go deeper,” Hermes said. “And I take everybody with me.”

For more information on the class, call 707-527-4533. You may sign up for the class by going to the location, and the instructor will give you an application.

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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