Every year, the LGBTQ community celebrates June as Pride Month along with “straight” allies. This month pays tribute to those involved in the 1969 Stonewall Riots, as well as celebrates all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, or agender individuals. Although much progress has been made since the Stonewall Riots, social isolation, loneliness, and even access to safe, friendly services are still challenges for people who identified as LGBTQ. Iona is committed to providing safe, welcoming spaces for older LGBTQ adults to where they can gather, find support, build community, and get help with accessing resources. In partnership with Whitman-Walker Health, Iona offers Silver Circles—peer-led support groups for LGBTQ people over 60. We recently caught up with Silver Circles Facilitator Olivia O’Neal. Read ahead for our brief Q&A session as Olivia shares advice from group members on curbing isolation and anxiety during this time, and top take-a-ways from the group.
Q: What changes or other things have you noticed within your group since you all have been in quarantine?
A: I noticed the groups had more anxiety and a sense of loneliness than ever before, especially before we were able to get Zoom. Not knowing what was going to happen in the future affected many of our members. Remember, even before the pandemic, isolation was a challenge for some members. So the pandemic enhanced that a great deal—more than ever before. Now that we are able to see and hear each other again at our weekly Zoom meeting, it has lessened some. I think it will take a while to get back to where we were before the coronavirus. Many members told us [group facilitators] that they were feeling less isolated before the pandemic and thanked us for being there for them.
Q: Regarding the group members’ feelings of anxiety and isolation, was there any advice shared by you or other group members in the group?
A: There were a lot of tidbits that were shared on anxiety. It ranged from exercising to talking with friends that you haven’t heard from in years. Some other suggestions were as follows: Zooming with relatives, connecting with neighbors and social distancing, playing games on the computer, cooking new dishes, going for a walk, riding a bike, doing household projects, cleaning out closets and attics, organizing pantries, getting financial papers in order, etc. These are some ideas that members talked about.
Q: Have you noticed any major changes in group members overall from being in the group?
A: As a facilitator, I have witnessed a transformation of several members since joining a Silver Circle. For example, one member from a military background, was assaulted while serving in the military, and didn’t get much support or help before and since being discharged. Now, since being in the group, this member is active in the community and is thriving—seems to be more alive. The member told me and my co-facilitator that they owe it all to us. Impacts like this are why we need these groups to continue and be funded. This is just one story of many.
Q: What key benefits and take-a-ways have you noticed from group members?
A: They feel less isolated. They feel connected to other like-minded older adults from being able to talk about issues pertinent to them. They look forward to talking with one another on a regular basis, and become more open to developing friendships outside of the group. At our meetings, they feel safe to talk about their lives, including deaths of love ones, separation from loved ones, etc., even hearing advice from the members present. The cohesion of the group is important to the members and sets the foundation for a family like setting. Some members live alone and don’t have a family involved in their lives. So the group becomes their family.
Q: What information can you share with people who identify as LGBTQ who’d like to join a Silver Circle support group?
A: If you are interested in joining one of the groups, we’d love to have you! We have a total of five groups, including a new one just forming that will remain offered through Zoom even after in-person meetings eventually resume. To join a group, you must have a short intake phone call with Whitman-Walker staffer Michael Mitchell. He can be reached at 202-939-7646 or email@example.com.
Silver Circles support groups have been offered since 2018, and are funded by a grant from the DC Department of Aging and Community Living as well as private funds raised by Iona.
In addition, if you or someone you know identifies as LGBTQ and is suffering from feelings of isolation, Advocacy and Services for LGBT Elders (SAGE) is offering support by matching them with community members to connect and share what’s going on in their day or just to say “hi.” The SAGE hotline is 877-360-LGBT (5428) for help. For more information about the Sage connect program, visit sageusa.org/sageconnect.