By Mandy Weirich
This blog post is dedicated to my first cousin, Ricky Smith, whose beautiful smile and laughter could light up any room. Ricky died from AIDS in 1994 at age 30.
In 2011, I went back to school to get my master’s degree in Social Work. At the time I was working in adult protective services and my intent was to learn more about social work and aging. I knew that if I was going to affect change in adult protective services and related policies in my state, I needed a higher level of education.
About this blog series
Presented by ASA's LGBT Aging Issues Network and guest edited by Michael Dentato, Ph.D., M.S.W., this series of blog posts will focus on higher education and the integration of LGBTQ aging issues in curriculum.
LGBTQ Aging Issues in Higher Education: What’s Happening on Campus?
The Art of Weaving LGBTQ Aging Issues Throughout Higher Education
Netflix Binging for a Grade? Sign Me Up!
LGBTQ Aging: What a New Lawyer Needs to Know
At the start of the program, my focus was entirely on learning as much as I could about serving the older adult population, and how to become involved in policy changes that would improve services to elders. In every assignment, I tried to incorporate some aspect of aging or aging policy. In my state of West Virginia more than 17 percent of the population is age 65 or older, and we are the state with the highest median age.
Although our Appalachian culture has historically supported our elders and families have taken care of their own, many of the younger working adults are migrating for jobs and other opportunities. Many return to retire, but our caregiver workforce is limited. As our state’s aging population continues to grow, programs and policies need to be put into place to better address issues facing this vulnerable population. I want to be a part of that process.
Although my primary focus was on aging, the School of Social Work’s focus was to expose the students to many different populations and circumstances. For most of my life I have been a supporter of the lesbian and gay community. My awareness began as an elementary school student in the late 1980s during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. I clearly remember watching a movie about Ryan White and learning about a new idea in healthcare called “universal precautions.”
Because of this primary education, I began to piece together what was happening to my older cousin Ricky. Officially I was told Ricky was gay in hushed tones at a family gathering, and it was only much later that I learned that my grandmother blamed herself because she had allowed Ricky to wear her shoes when he played dress-up as a child.
To know Ricky was to know laughter, and it never occurred to me that I should love him any less or treat him any differently because he was gay. Through my teen years I had friends I suspected were gay, but it wasn’t something that was talked about. It wasn’t until my mid-20s when I formed a friendship with a lesbian co-worker that I really had an in-depth conversation with someone about their own experiences. It took a long time before my friend confided she was a lesbian. She usually referred to her girlfriend as her boyfriend in conversations so people would not know she was gay. Although it was the early 2000s, she had many bad experiences with homophobia and was reluctant to let anyone know about her personal life. Through all of this experience, in so many ways I remained ignorant to the issues facing the gay community.
LGBTQ was an all-encompassing acronym that I knew meant lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer, but I didn’t realize the nuances affecting each group. I was supportive but did not know definitively what I was supporting. One night we had a guest speaker in class. The presentation started with a slide show about a young girl who never felt quite right in the dresses her mother made her wear. The presentation progressed, and my heart weighed heavy for this girl who was trapped in a body that didn’t quite fit. It took me awhile to realize what was happening, because the little girl in the slide show was the man presenting to the class about his journey to becoming transgender. This was an “Aha” moment for me. This was more than someone wanting to have a sex change or just wanting to wear clothes of the opposite gender. This was a deeply felt process in a world that is unforgiving of change or difference.
Throughout the MSW program there were several assignments that incorporated LGBTQ issues. A few of my electives were classes for the Gerontology Graduate Certificate and they all highlighted issues of aging LGBTQ clients. Prior to these classes I knew on a very superficial level that LGBTQ clients may have a difficult time building trust with social workers, or they may be wary of certain programs because of discrimination in the past. But I hadn’t fully appreciated the level of discrimination in healthcare at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and how that would play out when trying to place a gay client in a nursing home. Even now I may not understand or know all the dynamics of what it means to be in the LGBTQ community, but my awareness is greater and I know I have resources that I can reach out to for help with these clients. I know better how I would research these issues and that I can better educate others.
Through my years of experience and in the MSW program, I know that when working with older adults, it is especially important for social workers to understand the many layers that make up their client and how their experiences shaped them. If you have an LGBTQ client it very important the client know that you are there for them and that you are willing to correct any ignorance you may have in a non-judgmental, professional way. Exposure to aging LGBTQ issues is very important to all social work students because they will surely be interacting with this population at some point in their career.
Now I am the statewide trainer for all of adult protective services. Our most recent curriculum update calls for a class on LGBT populations and will be developed in the next year.
At the end of my MSW journey I was able to participate in the inaugural Lavender Graduation Ceremony that honors LGBT students and their allies for their achievements and contributions to the university. I was very proud that my children could see me participate in this beautiful ceremony that encompassed many of my values as a social worker, friend and life-long ally.
Mandy Weirich, M.S.W., started her second career as a social worker as an Adult Protective Service Worker at the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources. She became the statewide trainer for Adult Services in 2012 and went on to get her MSW and Graduate Certificate in Gerontology at West Virginia University in 2014. Mandy is also an adjunct instructor at WVU School of Social work.