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Erie County offers its first senior dining program for LGBT community

Cheektowaga resident Judy Goldstein sat with her friends at Preservation Pub, a Main Street restaurant and bar flanked by the Buffalo Medical Campus and the Allentown neighborhood. They chatted over paper-lined, plastic baskets filled with burgers, salads and orange slices.

“I’m really in love with the place,” Goldstein said.

The only thing out of the ordinary was a small brown envelope sitting next to each person’s meal, encouraging a $3 donation. That and the fact that most of the Monday afternoon patrons were gay or lesbian senior citizens and that County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz was personally encouraging them all to eat and enjoy.

Monday marked the launch of Erie County’s first federally subsidized senior lunch program geared toward non-heterosexual seniors.

“It’s been a year in the making,” said Senior Services Commissioner Randy Hoak.

While the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community has gained increasing social acceptance, few think of this population as an aging one. But many in the LGBT community are not only getting older, but struggling to find their place among those of the same generation who have faced far more discrimination among their peers than their children or grandchildren are likely to.

For many, it’s a lonely existence, with aging gay adults becoming poorer and more isolated, said Rodney Hensel, a facilitator for the Silver Pride Project, which targets local LGBT seniors. Many return to the closet as their health concerns grow and they rely increasingly on government services and nursing home care.

“LGBT seniors, for the most part, are alone,” Hensel said. “They don’t have a partner, and many of them don’t have families because when they were coming out in the ’70s and ’80s, their families kind of threw them out.”

These older adults often view community and senior centers – where most subsidized dining is offered – as awkward and unwelcoming places.

“All of a sudden, everyone starts talking about their grandkids, and you don’t have anything to say,” said Hensel, 64, a longtime gay community activist who also serves on the county’s Senior Services Advisory Board.

When he talked county administrators into offering a subsidized senior lunch program for the LGBT community, both sides knew it had to be different than the 46 other dining sites the county already offers throughout the county.

For starters, this dining program is located at a regular restaurant. It’s the only one that is.

“It’s much nicer to eat here than a senior center,” said Goldstein, as she finished her burger.

At age 63, Goldstein said she doesn’t consider herself old enough to be a senior citizen, though the county program offers subsidized meals for anyone 60 and older, as well as their caregivers and spouses, for a suggested donation of $3. Other guests are asked to pay more, but nobody checks.

The county worked with the Pride Center of Western New York to locate a restaurant that would be willing to host a monthly lunch location.

Matthew Crehan Higgins, the center’s senior director, reached out to Preservation Pub owner Rosalyn Righetti. She ran the Ohm Ultra Lounge, a nighttime hangout near the corner of Main and Allen streets, for almost a decade before reopening the place in October 2015 as a cozy lunch spot with an expansive back patio.

Righetti had worked with Higgins years ago and agreed to make her restaurant available for the new program.

“He knew that I would make people feel welcome,” she said.

Because the LGBT lunch program is new, it’s only offered at Preservation Pub once a month, on the fourth Monday. If interest grows, she and county officials said they’d be happy to expand the program and make it weekly.

Like other county-sponsored senior dining programs, the senior meals offered at Preservation Pub must meet a third of the regular daily allowance of nutrients, Hoak said. County dieticians worked with the Preservation Pub’s existing menu to design senior meals that meet those requirements, he said.

Getting word to isolated LGBT seniors about the new program is a major challenge, however. And while Preservation Pub is easily accessible by bus and Metro Rail, parking is tight because of Medical Campus construction along Main Street. The Salvation Army has agreed, however, to let Preservation Pub patrons use their lot at 132 N. Pearl St.

On Monday, Poloncarz, Higgins and Hensel were on hand to celebrate the new program. Buffalo Assemblyman Sean Ryan also stopped by while Righetti traveled from table to table, checking on roughly a dozen patrons.

Hoak pointed out that the new dining program isn’t the only program the county and the Pride Center have worked on together. Six months ago, the county also began having a senior services case manager stationed at the Pride Center on Tuesdays and Fridays each week to help provide information to LGBT seniors and their caregivers about county services available to them.

Anyone interested in these senior offerings is encouraged to contact the Pride Center at 852-7743 or email Reservations for the senior dining program are encouraged.