Many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender seniors were part of a generation of trailblazers who changed laws and the way society treats LGBT people.

Now, they're embarking on the next stage of life — old age — and finding that it's got challenges of its own. 

All this week, CBC Radio One's On The Coast explores their stories in a special series called "Gay and Grey."

The idea came to us from former Vancouver City Councillor Alan Herbert, who decided to start a discussion group for gay seniors.

Alan Herbert's Past

Alan Herbert shows off photographs from his younger travelling days. (Stephen Quinn/CBC)

"I looked around and tried to see if there was already an existing support group that focused specifically on aging for gay men," Herbert said.

He couldn't find one.

"So I thought, alright, I'm just going to have to see if I can start one," he said.

Herbert's group has been meeting for several months, and what he's heard so far includes stories about isolation, loneliness, and the terror of depression. 

And Herbert emphasized the impact HIV and AIDS has had on him and his peers.

Alan Herbert

Alan Herbert started a group to discuss the challenges of being gay and grey. (Stephen Quinn/CBC)

"This cohort of gay men who are in their 60s today, many of their most productive earning years were spent surrounded by people who were dying, or they spent some of that time themselves in a hospital sick. They lost those years."

He says many people are afraid of being pushed back into the closet in order to get the care and support they need in the senior years.

"I'm aware there is still lots of bigotry. What I advise people is learn to be true to yourself." 

A diverse community with diverse challenges

Brian de Vries, a professor in the gerontology program at San Francisco State University, says the stories Herbert told sound familiar. 

De Vries, who researches aging in the LGBT community, says gay men are more likely to age alone, without children, and with increasing numbers of disabilities. 

Elderly lesbians face similar challenges, but with one major difference.

"There was some research recently that showed older lesbians had greater success at trying to create communities of care wherein they'd be able to support each other," said de Vries. 

Brian de Vries also emphasized that transgender seniors go unrecognized and are not supported by much of society. 

"We find, in our research, much higher rates of depression, of substance abuse, of HIV amongst transgender older adults who struggle in so many ways to find a place in the world that doesn't recognize the way in which they see themselves."

There's a silver lining

But de Vries sees evidence the situation is improving for the entire LGBT community. 

He points to facilities that have training for people working with LGBT seniors, and initiatives in many cities to create housing specifically for them.

'The idea of aging alone, or aging without children — those are not exclusively LGBT issues.'- Brian de Vries, SFSU gerontology professor

His research has also revealed that some people say being LGBT has helped prepare them for old age.

"We've learned to live a life with no one else there. We've learned how to do things for ourselves because we've needed to." de Vries said. "And it's that sort of armour I think with which some approach later life that will ultimately serve them well." 

He suggests today's LGBT seniors may forge a trail that will improve seniors care for everyone. 

"The idea of aging alone, or aging without children — those are not exclusively LGBT issues, and the more we could break free of the traditional notion of how services are provided, the better we are to offer services in a really person-centred appropriate way."

On the Coast is on weekdays on CBC Radio One from 3 to 6 pm in Metro Vancouver.

Stephen Quinn will examine challenges affecting LGBT seniors all week in a special series Gay and Grey. #gayandgrey


Changes Vancouver LGBT seniors witnessed

1969 - Canada decriminalized homosexual acts.

1983 - AIDS Vancouver created after the first HIV/AIDS cases were diagnosed.

1985 - The Vancouver Lesbian Centre opened on Commercial Drive.

1996 - Sexual orientation is added to the Canadian Human Rights Act.

2003 - Same sex marriage becomes legal in B.C.

2012 - The first transgender person competed in Miss Universe Canada.