SAGE Upstate is celebrating 26 years with more participants, more programs aimed at improving the quality of life of older GLBTQ people
By David Figura
Like many organizations, SAGE Upstate saw a marked decrease in the participation of its programs during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Going into it, we thought it was going to last a month and then we knew it wouldn’t — and we started putting many of our programs on Zoom. Some worked, some didn’t,” said Kim Dill, executive director of the Syracuse-based program that serves the needs of older lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning people.
Prior to the pandemic in 2020, SAGE offered health and educational programs, social activities and support groups to as many as 150 individuals per month.
Participation during the pandemic initially dropped more than 60%. The staff was cut from two to one employee. “Just me,” Dill said.
But now, she emphasized, “SAGE is coming back. Our participation [in programs and activities] is starting to reach pre-COVID levels.”
Currently there are three full-time employees, with a fourth to be added soon, Dill said. In addition, SAGE is contracting with several individuals — called “ambassadors” — who are getting paid to reach out, connect and come up with programs that attract subsets of the LGBTQ community, such as the transgender community and persons of color.
SAGE stands for Services and Advocacy for GLBTQ Elders.
SAGE Upstate is celebrating its 26th anniversary, was founded in 1997 by Syracuse residents Coy Ludwig and his partner, Dan Smith.
The gay couple attended a conference of the NYC chapter of SAGE about how to form a SAGE program. They came back to Syracuse determined to start one here.
They got together a group of community leaders, academics, professional people, the County Office for Aging and made it happen, Dill said.
Dill said as LGBTQ adults age they have many of the same economic and health issues that straight individuals face. However, they have the added challenges of discrimination and are less likely to have children or other family members to care for them, she added.
Loneliness is a huge issue, Dill said, as many of her agency’s clients are reluctant to reach out to mainstream sources of support because they’re unsure how they’ll be treated and if they’ll be accepted. When they were younger, the bar scene for many played a big role for socialization and connections. But things tend to change as one ages, Dill said.
SAGE’s programs include yoga, dance classes, a writer’s group, fitness classes and other health and wellness presentations. Many of the activities are socially oriented. Members enjoy things like potluck dinners, men’s nights out, a men’s support group, art classes, knitting, dances — all activities designed to keeping individuals from becoming socially isolated and giving them a safe space where they’ll feel comfortable and not judged or mistreated, Dill said.
The following are excerpts from a recent interview with Dill:
Q: How is your program funded?
A: We get money from the state Department of Health, Onondaga County, a number of generous donors and profits from local events that we host.
Q: What does it cost to participate in one of your programs?
A: We’re almost 100% free. We do have some fundraising events, but those are always what you can give, such as a suggested donation of $10 for a dance.
Q: What are the ages of those who participate in your programs?
A: Most are 55 and older. Some are younger. We have no age restrictions, but our programs are designed for older LGBTQ persons.
Q: What’s the percentage of men versus women who take advantage of your programs?
A: Right now, it’s probably 65% women, 35% men. With other SAGE chapters around the country, many have the opposite mix — all or mostly all men. Here, in the last few years, SAGE Upstate has shifted from all men, a lot of men, to many women. Back and forth. Some of the programs now are pretty even, such as everyone meeting at a restaurant for breakfast or a dinner. The veterans’ group, the writer’s group and the knitters group are all pretty even. But the high visibility events such as dances, a big potluck meal, a picnic — are mostly attended by women. We’re working on ways to change that.
Q: You mention “it’s a different game out there” for LGBTQ individuals when you were growing up. Explain.
A: I’m 65. If you’re someone my age or older you have lived through some awful periods of discrimination and prejudice against our community. People who came out before 1973 [when the American Psychiatric Association stated that homosexuality was not a mental illness or sickness], were classified as mentally ill. They did things like shock treatments. Even if you didn’t have to do that you knew what could happen if you came out of the closet. You could lose your job, get kicked out of your church, get dishonorably discharged from the military, have your families [disown] you. All that, and it was just fine with most of society. That’s one of the reasons that today the annual Gay Pride Parade is a pride parade, the opposite of shame. We’re proud of who we are.
Q: Thoughts about the current political environment and how it could affect those who you serve and the programs you offer?
A: Here in New York state, we’re lucky. But in other parts of the country, they’re trying to take things back to the 1950s, ‘60s or ‘70s. We lived through it and don’t want our young people to have to go through it again. It’s ridiculous how we’re backtracking on some things. It’s scary. Here in Syracuse, and in big cities, things are pretty good. Rural areas, though, are generally very conservative.
SAGE Upstate’s Advocacy Committee is raising awareness about efforts around the country to enact anti-LGBTQ laws that take rights away from members of our community — especially transgender people. We are encouraging people to stand up for inclusive laws, patronize LGBTQ supportive businesses and fight efforts to erase our history by banning books in schools and libraries.
Q: Talk about how your center supports LGBTQ veterans.
A: Our group meets monthly and we bring in a range of speakers to address various issues. The big thing is support, helping people find housing and health care. And also, making persons aware of the “The Restoration of Honor Act,” passed in 2019. [The law authorizes the New York State Department of Veterans’ Services to restore state veterans benefits to veterans who have been discharged with a status of other-than-honorable (OTH) or general (under honorable conditions) due to post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, military sexual trauma, sexual orientation, or gender identity or gender expression.] Many older persons in our community who served in the military and were dishonorably discharged in the past because of their sexual orientation or gender identity are unaware that they’re eligible now for disability compensation, pension and home loan benefits. We have a program called SAGE Vets. We do our best in league with SAGE New York City, along with other agencies (Clear Path, the local Veterans Administration), to educate veterans in our community and assist them in getting them their benefits. Many have been ashamed for years to even say that they served our country. It’s terrible.
Q: Your center serves as a place to connect people, resulting in good friendships and support networks, even a sense of family for those who have none locally.
A: I know for a fact that people who have met others through SAGE do things like celebrate birthdays together, get together on holidays. For all aging people, the loss of friends through death or them moving away is a part of life. If you don’t have that circle of support around you, you’ll suffer loneliness and isolation, which can have terrible negative effects both physically and mentally — particularly if you’re facing something hard.
We recently had one of our clients suffer a stroke at home and he called a SAGE friend who on a moment’s notice took him to the hospital and afterward gave him rides to his medical appointments. If we’re doing our job, that’s the kind of social connections we strive to foster.
More about SAGE
SAGE Upstate is located in the CNY Philanthropy Center at 431 E. Fayette St. in Syracuse. It serves older LGBTQ persons in Cayuga, Cortland, Jefferson, Madison, Oneida, Onondaga and Oswego counties. For more, go to sageupstate.org or call 315-478-1923. To sign up for the center’s weekly emails about activities and programs, go to sageupstate.org/weekly-email.