Robert Ganshorn

Just When You Think You are Immune to Heartbreak

Filed By Robert Ganshorn | October 14, 2008 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: elderly gays and lesbians, planning, retirement, suze ormann, Thailand

Late last week I received an email from someone who read my posting from May 17th. The title of that posting was: "Let's Face It, We are All Getting Older." Bilerico Project performed another miracle for me in letting me know the sad resolution of a great pair of friends from which I hope all who read this learn that we do not plan to fail, but we fail to plan. The picture you see is of the four of us on the Zambezi River headed to what was an incredible safari.

safari.jpgTo my horror, disgust, and sadness, my friends Wilfred and John did not die three years ago, but just nine and four months ago respectively at ninety-one and ninety-three. I was contacted by the one family member of John's who cared about them, and she had only spent time with them on four occasions. Still, I immediately knew who this was, because John and I had spoken of her and he described her as the brightest light of intelligence he had found in his family.

The last I knew they were moving to Wilfred's daughter's home in a specially built "granny flat" following the sale of their condo. The niece told me that due to failing eyesight they were being ill cared for by housekeepers/caregivers in the condo right down to being left physically dirty as they ate food they could no longer tell was unwholesome. She told me:

"We stayed for lunch which was an almost inedible chicken casserole and indeed pudding that we had to stop them from eating as it had three types of mold growing on it. They could no longer see this much."

She talked her great uncle John into putting the condo up for sale, but had to go back to England with her husband and family too soon to see them settled. The simplest thing, walking on the beach, they had not done because they could not see to do so. The niece walked with both her great uncle and "Auntie Wilfred."

"I was the only one in the family who gave a damn and I only met them four times."

They had already been refused admittance to a nursing home as a same sex interracial couple. Moving to Wilfred's daughters home was to be the solution, but it proved to be a further nightmare. They had a homophobic falling out, but still had a trusted straight family who took them in who were good friends. When Wilfred died John moved in with a gay man and his partner who also served as John's "financial adviser." Whether John knew it or not he signed over all his property to this person. We do not know how he spent his last days because, like many elderly infirm, he was isolated and did not have as little as access to a phone.

John's surviving contemporary relatives have told the niece to mind her own affairs. Her father has told her that Uncle John "made his own bed..." and no one from Wilf's family has been heard of since there is no money to attract their attention.

I wrote her back to have a scotch and celebrate the best of their well lived lives. Remember with gratitude that they were only five months parted from one another and that is everything. I am sending this niece a copy of a book John wrote that is long out of print entitled: "Against the Tide." In that it is gay themed literature John never mentioned it to his own family, but the niece had read it during one of her visits to them in South Africa.

Successful living as well as successful aging means a certainty of accepting loss. After I lost track of my friends I assumed that they were gone and now I have to grieve their loss once again. To any of you I say once again plan out the end of your life with equal interest that you would plan out a two week vacation. It will take longer than two weeks, but don't let it just happen to you day by day.

The last thing I wrote to the niece:

"It is wonderful that you care about John and Wilf and how they spent their days. Let me assure you that they spent most of them laughing, loving and alive for one another. Please remember them that way. I know that this is what they would have wanted. Also, try not to judge your relatives too harshly. I assume that if they are in the vicinity of your parent's age and up they have lost friends, health and family and have become immune to the intensity it brings to you. People are very imperfect and I applaud your desire to expect the best of them. I try and keep that same optimism, I am selfish you see, and it makes me happy to look for the best in others rather than look for their flaws. If I waste my time doing that, I am not living myself, so don't let it happen to you."

If just one person who reads this begins thinking of a plan for aging well the point of this posting will have been achieved.

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I've been lurking here for some time now and though I have almost been moved to comment at times, I haven't. Until now. This moved me to tears.

I'm not sure I could be as strong and beautiful and forgiving as you Robert. I'm a peaceful person but on hearing all of that I'd have been eaten alive inside...

Gods bless your soul, you are too kind for this cruel world. I hope your friends really are in a happy place, and together, for always.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | October 14, 2008 12:17 PM

Please look up "Tea with Nelson Mandela." In my anger over my friends I forgot that posting which should be included to understand how very special these people were.

I looked it up, here is the link to make it faster for everyone else:

Wow Robert, you were very fortunate to have known these men. I am sending you all of my heart right now.

Thank jGrrl. I added it to the front page too; I linked "they were moving to Wilifred's daughter's home" so folks would know there was a back story.

Wonderful - and important - post, Robert. Spot on.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | October 14, 2008 10:34 PM

Thanks, once again, I have no idea how to do that. :)

Robert, thanks for this important post. It raises an issue that too few people in our so-called "community" are prepared to talk about: the back-in-the-closet end to the lives of so many LGBT elders, and their slow awful deaths in social oblivion, after years of being out. There are too few LGBT safety networks for them -- too few LGBT organizations that care about old people -- too few care-providing facilities that will take in same-gender couples. And too few watchdogs that protect our elders against predators like John's gay friends who fleeced him of his property.

This is a jarring, but justified, theme for "Coming Out Day."

Too many younger people in the "community" fall in with a prevailing "community" attitude that old people are nasty, ugly and useless. Part of the reason why these people don't make their own plans for a dignified and comfortable old age is because they didn't see the problem coming when they were young and earning good money. By the time they WERE old and needing that kind of safety net, it was too late.

Often the most attractive option, to an old person who has been abandoned in this way, is suicide.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transfender people should take Robert's advice -- care about yourselves and make your own plans as ironclad as you can, because chances are that no one else will care. And establishing networks for your own care is going to be doubly challenging as long as the financial crisis lasts (which may be for many years, according to my friends on Wall Street.)

We will never be a real community until stories like this one about Robert's friends can no longer be told.

Growing old for everyone is difficult, straight or gay. Many children "caretakers" treat their aging parents with intimidation and cruelty. Where I live in Palm Springs many older gay men with money and young lovers who look after them. There is nothing wrong with this and many realtionships are very successful. Suicide is never the answer unless the pain is unbearable. The older couple above were remarkable. Leaving Africa and starting a business in England at age 70 took balls.
The following is an excerpt regarding suicide from my memoir. Who hasn't thought about it sometime in their life ?
"I had thoughts of suicide and did research on the Internet and found the "Final Exit" webpage. I ordered their video tape on how to die the most painless way by breathing helium with a plastic bag over the head. I ordered the bag and I went to Toys R Us and bought two containers of helium used for blowing up party balloons. I was depressed and decided I needed help, physically and mentally. I couldn't go though with putting a bag over my head and laughed at the idea. I thought as long as I could laugh, I was not ready to die. I was sure there was another way to make changes that were not so dark and final."

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | October 14, 2008 10:32 PM

Good for you Charles. I practice the gift of laughter daily. Every morning I take a long look in the mirror.

Robert, this is a very important and moving post. Thank you.

One of the pitfalls of not having children of your own. Having them is no guarantee that they won't turn out to be ungrateful little "bitch-trolls from hell", but that hasn't been the case in my family.

Then again, we're Hispanic; we don't throw our elders into "nursing homes". We'd rather even clear up our garages and remodel them into a room rather than throw away our sages.

Speaking of sages, SAGE is a nice organization to look into for this issue. I also wonder if any nursing home akin to Berlin's nursing home for same-sex couples exists in the U.S.

Above all, SAVE. Big mistake for many Americans, who live on a day-by-day basis in regards to their finances. The U.S. is a very cold and dark place for those not in their financial prime.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | October 15, 2008 6:24 AM

And Wilfred had a wife, son and daughter. It was virtually impossible in the time frame he occupied to not marry as an African man. Even when he and John had to leave South Africa because of their business connection (no, it was not sex, it was Apartheid) he would still make the annual trek to South Africa to be with his family for 4-6 weeks per year, every year. This is not uncommon as so often persons who work must be separated from their families. Both his son and daughter have college degrees.

In Thailand Gay friendly nursing homes are a non issue. You would think smart entrepreneurs would key in to this market in the states.

You live in Thailand ? When you have a chance write something about Jim Thompson, a gay man who dissapeared after building up an international Thai silk fabric business. I visited his Bankok home in the 1960's and saw his manificent asian art collection. Fascinating mystery.

And his coming out to his family (assuming he did) did not fracture his relationship with them in the least? I was more referring to having children with his husband, to raise children who would be less negatively impacted and thus more understanding. Then again, I'm assuming-- perhaps unjustly-- that his relationship with his family at the stage of old age was tenuous.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | October 16, 2008 5:26 AM

Wilfred grew up in a traditional African tribal setting. His father had six wives and 27 children. I think, if anything, Wilfred could not understand his children nor they him. His "children" are about sixty five and live in the only country in Africa that recognizes Gay marriage. They are also college educated and should know better. I cannot say what Wilf told them because I was not there.

Wilfred did not wish to live as a poor tribal African herder and saw to it that his wife and children did not have to. Is that not enough to secure a comfortable care for him and his preferred companion when he was blind and needed care? I would think so.


Having read most of your columns, I know you will never be immune to heartbreak until you're gone. You have a fair sense of fair play and I think your articles are always spot on. Heartbreak and loss can make one a stronger person or it can completely destroy lives. I prefer the former as you obviously do as well. Keep writing.

BeachcomberT | October 15, 2008 7:57 AM

Thank you for the powerful reminder we all have to make provisions to stay independent as long as we can. But the gay "family" as it likes to call itself has a responsibility to be a safety net for its infirm elders, many of whom are estranged from biological relatives or else abandoned after their bank accounts run out. Gay-friendly churches can help with this. My tiny church, New Church Family in Daytona Beach, transports an elderly member from his nursing home to church services nearly every Sunday. It's his only remaining contact with the LGBT community since his partner of 56 years died several months ago.