Frank Benedetti, 71, and Gary Trowbridge, 70, have been a gay couple for 46 years, and they know that hospitals, assisted living centers and even nursing homes may be a part of their future.
"If one of us is put in the hospital, we would be dependent upon the kindness of emergency room personnel" to let the other know what is going on, Benedetti said. "And who wants to deal with this when in crisis?"
Because the two men can't legally marry in North Carolina, they have none of the benefits that heterosexual married couples take for granted, he said.
The two men will speak in a panel discussion tonight after the showing of a documentary on the rights of elderly gays at Aperture Cinema in downtown Winston-Salem. The documentary, titled "Gen Silent," profiles older gays who have dealt with homophobic caretakers in nursing homes and assisted-living centers. The film showing was coordinated by the Northwest Piedmont Area Agency on Aging.
"We are bringing Gen Silent to our community to educate professionals, family caregivers, and our neighbors about the unique challenges and biases that LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) elders face," said Holli Ward, a family caregiver-support specialist with the agency. "Making people aware is the first step in changing the atmosphere and promoting a good quality of life and dignity for all of our population throughout their aging journey."
Another member of the panel will be David Piner, CEO and president of Arbor Acres, a retirement community in Winston-Salem affiliated with the United Methodist Church.
Arbor Acres accepted its first same-sex couple in 2000.
"There were questions when we first admitted an openly gay couple, but not controversy," Piner said. "And my board dealt with it with considerable grace."
Since then, the retirement community has welcomed several same-sex couples; Piner declined to say how many.
Arbor Acres does not publicize that same-sex couples are welcomed, but "the message has gone out that Arbor Acres does live by its United Methodist motto of 'open hearts, open minds, open doors,' " Piner said.
Same-sex couples have trouble throughout their lives in different ways, "but the problems are particularly pronounced for seniors," said Ian Palmquist, director of Equality North Carolina, a gay advocacy group.
Heterosexual couples can pay a small sum, go get a marriage license and automatically have access to more than 1,100 rights and privileges at the federal level, and hundreds more at the state level, he said.
"Same-sex couples have to acquire these rights one by one, paying an attorney for each of these and for every piece of documentation setting up those rights or privileges," Palmquist said. "Even after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, same-sex couples still don't have the rights that heterosexual married couples do."
Benedetti and Trowbridge, as an aging gay couple, say they are most concerned about three things: taxes, benefits and health care.
Experiences for gay couples in hospitals, nursing homes and health-care centers are all over the map — some good, some bad, they said.
A couple of years ago, Benedetti had prostate surgery at Wake Forest University Baptist Hospital.
"The personnel there were extremely helpful and allowed Gary to spend the night in the room with me," Benedetti said. "It was a great experience."
But the two know of an elderly lesbian couple who had been together for years. After one of them died in her sleep, the family of the deceased entered the home and stripped it of nearly all the furnishings, leaving the surviving partner with almost nothing.
Benedetti said he and his partner have put nearly everything they own in both their names, so that whatever they own together will be passed along to the surviving partner when one dies.
Gays are more likely to grow old alone, because many do not have children, and sometimes their families have abandoned them.
"Sometimes we get discouraged," said Benedetti, who added that both he and his partner are veterans (Benedetti served in the Army, Trowbridge in the Air Force). "We are sometimes treated like second-class citizens, and it's hard not to be bitter. But we try to keep good humor, even when things are stacked against us."
Benedetti receives a pension from Wachovia Corp. where he worked, but when he dies, that's it — it's gone.
"If we were legally married, Gary could continue to receive my pension," Benedetti said.
Wachovia simply did not set up the plan that way, he said.
"It was not done out of meanness, but it just never occurred to them," he said. "Wachovia has been good to me, but this just wasn't on their radar."
Steve McGinnis, co-founder of Equality Winston-Salem, said shedding light on the issues will help.
"In Northwest North Carolina, there's not a lot of exposure of gay and lesbian issues," McGinnis said. "In the United States early on, we were the melting pot. It was important for all these cultures to blend in together and be Americans."
But McGinnis prefers to think of the U.S. now as a "cornucopia."
"We are all part of that basket but we shouldn't lose our identity," he said.
If the country needs more exposure to these issues, that means that gays and lesbians have got to step up and discuss these things, McGinnis said.
Meanwhile, Benedetti and Trowbridge hope that the time has come that "the culture won't see the harm in two people trying to take care of each other in their old age."
"We are God's children, and American citizens, and are just as deserving and capable of love as anyone else."