DineTogether program brings needed connection to local LGBTQ+ seniors

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Photo by Askar Abayev / Pexels
Photo by Askar Abayev / Pexels

Around the world, COVID-19 has contributed to a measurable rise in loneliness. That makes sense, considering that social distancing has been the norm over the past two years.

But long before the majority of the population began to grapple with quarantine's effects, loneliness was a way of life for about one-third of Americans. The most at-risk group for developing loneliness is adults 65 and older; LGBTQ+ elders, who are twice as likely to live alone than their heterosexual counterparts, are especially vulnerable to social isolation.

That's why the DineTogether program with AgePRIDE was created. It been connecting LGBTQ+ seniors for free monthly lunch meetups at the Tin Table restaurant and bar since late summer of last year.

AgePRIDE is an arm of the Goldsen Institute at the University of Washington School of Social Work, developed to improve the lives and well-being of older LGBTQ+ adults. Program Manager Laura Culberg said she got the idea for DineTogether's format because she felt it was important for seniors to have "regularity" in their lives and a consistent social outlet.

"I thought, 'Wouldn't it be great to partner with a restaurant?'" Culberg said. "I contacted [the owner of the Tin Table] Hallie Kuperman, who is a friend of mine, and said, 'Would you consider partnering with me to try this out? This is a pilot.'"

Kuperman came on board, and it wasn't long before LGBTQ+ seniors had an established monthly space to grab a free lunch and connect face-to-face. And while the invitation prioritizes LGBTQ+ attendees, so long as participants are at least 55 years old and a resident of King County, allies are welcome.

"Socializing is a lot harder as a single person," Culberg said. "I think it's harder at any age, but especially when you're older... it's super challenging and vulnerable to make plans."

Health benefits
Culberg emphasized that despite DineTogether origins in curbing social isolation, the intent of the monthly luncheons is never to "pathologize anyone."

"We invited participants to join us, and we very explicitly wanted to be just about engagement and not about, 'There's something wrong with you,' 'You're sad and lonely,' 'You're having trouble with your memory and your health,'" Culberg said. "It was just about getting out and being engaged."

While something as small as taking time for a meal with peers might seem inconsequential, there is evidence to show that the health benefits of consistently socializing can be significant. The Goldsen Institute's founder and director, Dr. Karen Fredriksen-Goldsen, said that "about two-thirds of LGBTQ+ older adults are pretty severely socially isolated," and the related health effects can be dire.

"We know that social isolation can lead to very significant health disparities and that people who are isolated are at risk of premature mortality, premature cognitive decline, and many adverse health conditions," said Fredriksen-Goldsen. "This idea was to find ways to create connections and engage LGBTQ+ seniors in an opportunity to meet with others and build community. That is why we started the DineTogether program."

Community input
She added that DineTogether wasn't created in a vacuum without community input either. Rather, it the result of observations from a community-driven study. In addition to being an expert in well-being and longevity in underserved populations, Fredriksen-Goldsen is the principal investigator of the National Health, Aging, and Sexuality/Gender Study, funded through the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute on Aging. It is the first-ever longitudinal study of LGBTQ+ older adults — meaning that researchers consistently examine the same individuals to detect any changes that might occur over a period of time. Notably, the 11-year effort just gained an extension to 15 years.

"What we noticed is that a lot of LGBTQ+ seniors or older adults were isolated, and while they may have been well connected in earlier parts of their lives... as their peers also became older or maybe developed their own health conditions or became more limited in their mobility, many of them ended up socially isolated," Fredriksen-Goldsen said.

"And then with COVID, that situation was exacerbated, because so many couldn't connect, and people are still fearful to come out and connect."

Connecting comfortably
That fear of connection may be the reason behind some of the low attendance rates at DineTogether. However, in the case of Thomas Merritt, a regular at the program, whose need for greater social engagement came after his husband died, he makes sure to attend whenever he can.

"It's a reason to get out, a reason to connect with people. There's not many people at the luncheon to connect with, but I'm going to keep going and hope that it gets bigger and bigger," Merritt said. "I like having an excuse to get up and go out, and that gives me a good one. And it's also geared for my age group."

When asked if he attends other events marketed to LGBTQ+ people, Merritt said that he doesn't feel as comfortable as he used to.

"A friend of mine and I, not too long ago, went over to The Cuff. What I realized is that I'm a 70-year-old in a 35-year-old world, and most of us that are in my age group, there's not much out there for us for socializing and getting together," Merritt said. "I felt very uncomfortable among all these 30-year-olds, and I imagine they prefer to have an age group of their own."

Chef Frank Wielgosiek — Photo courtesy of The Tin Table  

Frank Wielgosiek, the Chef at the Tin Table, who serves these monthly luncheons, is also a part of the community. At 64 years old, he said that his experience has been similar to Merritt's.

"Being a little bit older, I still enjoy being around people," Wielgosiek said. "Going to bars is not really a part of my life right now, and I don't feel quite as comfortable going to the Gay bars, because I feel self-conscious a little bit, being an older person, unless I'm hanging out with other people in my age bracket."

For that reason, Wielgosiek provides just "a little bit more care and love" when preparing the food for this event.

"I'm very protective of my food that I'm giving out, and I give them more than what the group has paid for," he said. "It's a pleasure to do that for them."

Fredriksen-Goldsen added that she too is eager for more people to join the DineTogether program, but said that starting small has been intentional, too, in order to get more feedback about improving the event.

"That's the process we're in now: growing the program," she said. "And that way, the people that participate can help shape it. And people have shared a lot of excitement and have helped more people know about it."

DineTogether events are held every first Friday of the month from noon to 1 p.m. RSVP at AgePrideCenter@uw.edu. This event is currently in its second session, and plans are being made to partner with other restaurants in other neighborhoods to increase accessibility.