What prevents older LGBTQ+ adults from aging in place? An interview with Marisa Turesky, Urban Planning Ph.D. Candidate  

By Candela Cerpa

The importance of home and community can shift with stages in life and major events, as the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted for many of us. Aging can be one of those stages, as people’s needs and wants change. In 2021, the AARP’s Home and Community Preferences Survey showed that 77% of adults aged 50 and older want to “remain in their homes for the long term.” This desire to “age in place” has been consistent for more than a decade.

To learn more about this body of research, we spoke with Marisa Turesky, a Ph.D. candidate in USC Price School’s Urban Planning and Development program. Her dissertation Locating Lesbian Lives shares the process of aging back into the closet through 29 oral histories. Turesky recently won the ACSP’s award for “Best Student Work on Diversity, Social Justice, and the Role of Women in Planning” [read the paper here]. You can connect with Marisa Turesky on LinkedIn, Twitter, or at turesky@usc.edu.

Community-based and led research and interviews

As a new LA resident, Turesky wanted to learn about the local lesbian community. At the Mazer Lesbian Archives, she discovered stories and personal histories of lesbians having to go back into the closet as they aged. Ever since “I have been trying to understand why this ‘traumatic phenomenon’ was happening.” This became “how might housing, communities, and neighborhoods contribute to [older lesbian adults’] comfort and safety?” As the Archives “was mostly run by older lesbian volunteers who shared the community history,” the space became a community space.

Turesky interviewed some of these older lesbian adults about “their attachments to places in the past, in the present, and into the future.” Given her focus on community engagement, she structured her interviews to let the participant set the agenda. “They would draft a list of the places that were important to them in the past and into the future, and then they would walk us through it,” she said. “Instead of me asking them ‘Is home important to you? Why?’ or ‘Is the park not important?’ or ‘Do you go to the bars?’ I followed their lead.” This approach helped Turesky avoid assuming “what the participants are ‘supposed’ to notice.” This enabled them to “share their priorities, even if they are not familiar with the terms” used in the academic planning literature.

Community spaces are crucial but endangered

Turesky focuses on the relationship between loneliness and aging in place. Parts of the literature see social isolation and loneliness as interchangeable experiences. Her research shows social isolation as “an objective measure of how many ties one has” and loneliness as “the subjective experience of whether [those ties] meet intimacy expectations.” This is reflective of the fact that when one lacks community, densely populated areas are not guaranteed to assuage the feeling.

Loneliness is something everyone experiences, but older adults are more prone to it because social spaces are not built for them. “Urban spaces generally are designed for younger people,” particularly when considering LGBTQ+ spaces. Gay bars, some of the only gay spaces, are disappearing across the U.S. Even when available, “older adults often feel socially excluded in spaces so dark, noisy, and often inaccessible to disabled people.” These problems multiply for marginalized identities like race, ethnicity, economic factors, and disability. It is clearer why older LGBTQ+ adults particularly value the safety and comfort found in their homes. Turesky’s research adds a gender-focused and queer lens to the literature on aging in urban spaces.

ACSP 2022 Presentation

Intersectional research

Turesky noticed the literature gap on “the different purposes and meanings” that people give to their housing. This variability “depends on [their] contexts and identities.” She relates intricacies to social isolation, loneliness, and fear of losing community connections. Turesky sees housing affordability and accessibility as a key way to support older lesbian adults and other LGBTQ+ adults to age in place. The goal should be that people can not only find houses but also stay in them. “By homes,” she expands, “I do not mean only the shelter; home is about community development, care, our related facets of urban life, and linking people with the services, resources, and places that they want to be in and stay at.” The planning field often assumes that people will just get up and move when spaces stop serving them without any harm. Turesky hopes hers and the broader research will highlight how some people want to age in that same broader home and community that they had when they were younger.

“By homes,” she expands, “I do not mean only the shelter; home is about community development, care, our related facets of urban life, and linking people with the services, resources, and places that they want to be in and stay at.”

For LGBTQ+ folks, it can be harder to build trusting relationships given the disproportionate rates of violence they face. “It has been really hard [for some participants] to imagine moving” from developing relationships with neighbors and friends, with people you can rely on to look out for you, “to paying someone to [care for you].”

An exciting example local to the Triangle

Turesky closed our interview with a high note for housing for older LGBTQ+ adults. She noted some upcoming research on separate queer housing spaces, and the Triangle area is home to one such place. Village Hearth Cohousing, found in North Durham, is an LGBT-focused community for people over the age of 55. “For some participants, co-housing comes up every time her group of older lesbian friends gets together.” Co-housing provides a community space and affordable, inclusive, and safe housing options. Safety in housing is often front of mind for LGBTQ+ people, who face unequal rates of wealth inequality and violence. “When they were younger, they wanted their own space,” Turesky reflects, “but now that they are older, they are more afraid of being alone, running out of affordable care in the coming years, especially if they do not have a partner to help support them.” These spaces, while not exclusive to LGBTQ+ adults, center inclusive needs. This allows them to age together without diminishing this important part of their identity, particularly if they are in relationships where they want to express affection freely. “Some residents have expressed feeling safe enough to hold their partner’s hand or give them a kiss hello and goodbye in these quasi-public spaces!” Turesky shares.

Researchers and activists like Turesky mark a brighter future for planning for older LGBTQ+ people. “Urban planners should think about ways to mitigate barriers to these creative approaches and alternatives to market-rate housing,” Turesky concludes. To improve conditions, we must recognize that senior housing spaces are “often entrenched in anti-Black racism, homophobia, and misogyny.” Planners should continue to build and support spaces for all ages, abilities, and sexualities by exploring creative housing options, accessible community building, and beyond.

Candela is a first-year master’s student in the Department of City and Regional Planning at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is interested in fair disaster planning, particularly around floods. Born and raised in Uruguay, she received her B.S. in Environmental Science and Policy from the University of Maryland, College Park. Outside of work and school, she enjoys cooking, listening to audiobooks, and organizing around social issues.

Edited by Jo Kwon

Featured Image: Elderly Woman. Photo Credit: Flickr.