In a culture obsessed with Instagram lives, TikTok dances, and trending hashtags, seniors can feel left out. Older lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ) people may face additional barriers to connection given the possible absence of children, grandchildren, and – in some cases – other family members who have shunned them. Add to that the devastation of the AIDS epidemic, which wiped out entire friend groups.
And then there’s COVID-19.
“I stay at home all day, I don’t ever go outside,” says Jordan Davis, 68. “I don’t have many people to call me or people to interact with.”
“Especially with COVID.”
Luckily, Davis participates in Silver Circles, LGBTQ peer-led groups that meet virtually. The groups are a program funded in large part by the DC Department of Aging and Community Living (DACL), and administered through a partnership between Iona Senior Services and Whitman-Walker Health.
“Connection is so important for this population and the Silver Circles gives individuals the opportunity to meet new people, discover shared history, and even experience history together,” says Michael Mitchell, Peer Support Coordinator at Whitman-Walker Health.
One of the groups happened to be meeting while crowds were being cleared from Lafayette Park during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Knowing the participants’ attention might be elsewhere, the group leader suggested that they turn on their TVs so they could watch it together, and then they talked about what was happening, relating it to other demonstrations and movements in which they had all been a part of while growing up.
This small suggestion allowed Silver Circle members to watch history unfold together. They were able to share that moment, process it in real time, and use it as an opportunity to bond.
Before the pandemic forced the Silver Circles to move to virtual spaces, they met twice a month in several locations across the District: Iona’s location in Tenleytown, and Whitman-Walker’s two health center locations near Logan Circle and in Anacostia at Max Robinson Center. There is a group for women, two for men, and one that is mixed gender – with a second mixed-gender group in the works.
“When COVID-19 began to hit, we kept hearing terms like ‘shelter-in-place,’ and ‘isolate’ – and isolation is the last thing this population needs,” said Susan Messina, Deputy Director of Iona Senior Services. “Our Silver Circle group leaders told us that our participants needed connection now more than ever and twice a month just wasn’t going to do it. So we found the resources for each group to meet weekly.”
“The learning curve for moving to a virtual experience was steep for all our programming, but now that we have everyone up to speed tech-wise, we’re humming along on Zoom,” says Messina. Participants without a computer or Wi-Fi can call into the meeting by phone.
“It was so nice to see everyone’s faces again!” said Olivia O’Neal, a long-time Iona and Whitman-Walker volunteer, and community activist who is trained as a Silver Circle group leader. “We’re always happy to see each other and to be able to talk about our daily lives. We talk about everything: the pandemic, family dynamics, alcohol and addiction, aging as LGBTQ people…nothing is off the table.”
“It means so much to us.”
The groups reflect the diversity of the District across many lines, including race, class, religion, and gender identity. With Silver Circles being created to support LGBTQ seniors, they welcome each letter of the acronym – creating space for transgender and gender expansive seniors. Fitting in hasn’t been much of a problem in any of the groups.
“I like that the groups are diverse,” said Davis, who for 63 years has lived in the Ward 4 house where he grew up. “Nobody’s negative around racial stuff. We get along with each other.”
“I appreciate that.”