Gay and gray: Grappling with ageism, loneliness and the long shadow of AIDS

When he set out to study gay men on the cusp of old age, Jesus Ramirez-Valles expected to find psychological fallout from the AIDS epidemic that darkened the years in which these baby boomers came of age. He did. What surprised him was how many in a group that had championed sexual freedom were now lonely and wishing they had partners to grow old with.

"More and more and more they were saying, I wish I had a partner," Ramirez-Valles said.  "I wish I was in love."

People of all orientations are imbued with the idea that happiness and fulfillment are found in being part of a couple, he said.  "Despite the marriage equality movement, a lot of these guys missed the boat" on finding a partner, he said, and many have no children.

Ramirez-Valles, professor and director of community health sciences at the University of Illinois-Chicago, spoke this month at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Nursing. His most recent book, published in August, is Queer Aging: The Gayby Boomers and a New Frontier for Gerontology. In it, he told the stories of 11 aging gay men he had interviewed in depth. Five were HIV-positive. When he started his research, he said, he learned that older gay men are studied inadequately by aging experts and also by scholars who focus on the LGBTQ community.

The oldest boomers turned 65 in 2011, so most are not yet facing the most serious health problems encountered in old age.  The men Ramirez-Valles interviewed were evaluating their lives as they approached a new chapter.  Some felt pride in their accomplishments, but there was also guilt about having survived AIDS when friends did not, sadness at the added emphasis on youth in gay culture, and a desire for deeper connection. Ramirez-Valles said age discrimination is worse in the gay community because many men rely on sex to build friendships.  

One man told Ramirez-Valles that he had never had a partner and wanted to experience that before he died. He had managed not to contract HIV and, as a result, felt pressured to be a role model. "If I'm left, I have to be the best little gay boy every," he said.

Another, who said his Christian faith had helped him survive HIV, said he'd lost his last partner so long ago he couldn't remember the man's  name.  He was finding dating disheartening. "Men my age who I might be attracted to are looking for younger guys," he said.   

Ramirez-Valles, 51, thinks the answer is for gay men to use their organizing skills to create supportive networks and new models of multigenerational housing.  He thinks straight boomers who are entering old age alone will also be looking for solutions. "The demographics are in our favor because a lot of baby boomers are marrying less and less. In a lot of ways, they're looking like gay people. .... We will be at the table together."

He thinks that it's a bad idea to segregate the elderly in separate housing. Younger people need to learn about aging, and older people need a more stimulating environment.

He and his husband are already planning to move to Mexico, where Ramirez-Valles grew up.  "We're planning a communal house in Mexico where we can afford help," he said.