LGBTQ elders talk about the challenges and possibilities of change

Originally published February 16, 2012 in PQ Monthly.

Nikki (Neil) Heilpern takes inspiration from the butterfly as she prepares to re-emerge from retirement. Photo by Erin Rook, PQ Monthly.
By Erin Rook, PQ Monthly

The only constant in life is change — a truism that seems to intensify with the passage of time.

“One of the things about aging is that there are changes,” says Peggy Hackenbruck, a co-facilitator for Gay & Grey’s support group for LGBTQ seniors. “You can’t predict what the changes are so you do have to continue to learn how to deal with change.”

While some of those changes can be hard to accept — such as the loss of a partner, health, or home — age lends a perspective and experience that can help with that process.

“You’ve done it and you have some strategies for working with it,” Hackenbruck says.

Three seniors share their strategies for dealing with change — and some of the things they’ve gained in a time so often associated with loss.

Emerging from the cocoon of retirement

The life cycle of the butterfly serves as an apt and common metaphor for many kinds of transformations. For Nikki/Neil Heilpern, an “old married queer” for whom gender is subject to perpetual evolution, the magic inherent in that metamorphosis is as vivid and relevant at age 69 as it was in her childhood.

“You’re not afraid of butterflies are you?” Heilpern asks, looking down at the shimmering wings adorning her shirt and slacks. Though she tries to embrace the change they represent, it doesn’t always come easily.

When Heilpern’s body delivered a pink slip five years ago in the form of employment-ending pain, she accepted her new reality, but never really adjusted to life without work.

“I was at the state capitol doing my routines,” Heilpern says of her last day working as a journalist. “I had just interviewed someone on the Senate side. I was walking over to the House side. Halfway across I stopped. I could feel the pain in my back and legs and just said, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I don’t have the stamina.’ So I got in the elevator, got in my car, and went home.”

She not only retired from reporting and photographing after that day, she also closed up shop on her traveling puppet show. While this gave Heilpern’s body a chance to rest, it spurred her mind into a three-year depression.

Eventually, she realized she needed to feel useful lest she “shrivel up.” So Heilpern started attending a support group for LGBTQ elders and began volunteering with children at Friendly House. Now, she is preparing to come out of retirement to write and photograph again.

“I have to force myself to get out of the house,” Heilpern admits. “I can’t give into the image I have that I’m an old person. I’ve made 69 revolutions around the sun, but inside I’m still a kid.”

Fortunately, she has plenty of projects to choose from. Of the 300 or so writing projects on her to-do list, she is most excited about her children’s book manuscript, “The Maccabee Kids.”

“I’m going beyond my fear of rejection,” she says. “If I keep putting it off because of my fears, my song will go unsung.”

Settling down, but not settling

As Steve Smith begins his search for the “final residence before the final residence,” he is weighing a different sort of rejection.

The 70-year-old retired teacher is in the market for a place to live out the rest of his days and, like many LGBTQ seniors, is finding the options rather limited by both finances and fear of discrimination.

One community he looked into had great curb appeal. One of Smith’s gay male friends lives there with happily with his partner — a fact that helps to assuage any fears of returning to the closet. But the price tag was simply too high.

“For one of the best retirement communities in Portland that would mean having about $1.5 million in order to qualify for a one-bedroom (plus den) apartment. Being 50 cents short of that sum I decided to admire the building from afar rather than buy in,” Smith jokes dryly.

Smith may not be looking for luxury, but he is concerned about being forced to spend the rest of his life surrounded by people whose attitudes about LGBTQ people were formed when homosexuality was still considered a mental illness.

“Even though I’ve never lived or worked in a gay ghetto, I do wonder about living in close quarters with a largely heterosexual population of my own generation,” Smith admits. “Owners and administrators of retirement communities can have the best intentions, but will fellow residents be the people I thought I left behind on the elementary school playground?”

Whatever the future holds for Smith, he will likely tackle it with the same pragmatic attitude that has marked his recent life transitions. When he was preparing to retire a few years ago, his financial adviser told him he wouldn’t be able to afford living in the San Francisco area without a job. So he researched his options via gay chat rooms and landed in Portland.

“Making gay friends was a little like finding a job — it took some time, a little effort, and willingness to be the stranger in a crowd,” Smith recalls. “Finding and making friends with straight people is much easier — they unconsciously flaunt their sexuality so they are easy to identify and there are so many of them.”

The same could be said for gay-friendly retirement communities, but Smith isn’t giving up in his search for the perfect place to rest his head — or his next adventure.

“I am not ready to call it quits,” Smith says. “I hope to remain mobile, active, helpful when I can be, interested in other people and life in general.”

Steve Smith keeps it pragmatic as he looks for “the final residence before the final residence.” Photo by Karen Tweedy-Holmes.

Everything old is new again

Contrary the ageist adage about “old dogs” not being able to learn “new tricks,” 69-year-old Peggy Hackenbruck is finding that older LGBTQ folks are in some ways better positioned to create new community resources than their younger counterparts. Call it the “Been there, done that” effect.

“We are really the first group of LGBT seniors that have a community identity,” Hackenbruck says, which includes politics, music, art and the shared experience of living through the birth of the AIDS epidemic. “From Stonewall on we had to create other kinds of cultural community groups and businesses.”

Just as a once-fractured community came together in the face of the AIDS crisis to make alliances and commitments to care for one another, Hackenbruck says LGBTQ seniors are realizing once again that they are all in this together.

“Many of us don’t have children, and those who do, may have children [and] grandchildren we aren’t out to,” Hackenbruck says. “By and large, we have each other.”

It is this realization that inspired Hackenbruck to take her background in community organizing and mental health to the next logical step — co-facilitating a support group for LGBTQ seniors through Gay & Grey.

While she recognizing the power in LGBTQ seniors coming together to face the challenges of aging, she also acknowledges the vital role to be played both straight allies and younger LGBTQ folks.

“[It helps] having a perspective that we have generations coming up behind us and knowing that you all are going to move forward in the areas that need to be addressed,” Hackenbruck says.

As for the support of the broader community, Hackenbruck says it is both necessary and deserved. Fortunately, organizations such as Friendly House, which runs the Gay & Grey program, are stepping up to offer their expertise and access to financial resources.

“This isn’t a grassroots GLBT phenomenon. This is something that is grounded in a regular old senior center,” Hackenbruck says. And that’s as it should be. “We are a part of this greater community and we deserve to have a share of the services.”

For information on resources for LGBTQ elders, visit


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