‘I felt so caught in between’: LGBTQ+ caretakers face special challenges


June 7, 2023

LGBTQ+ caretakers face special challenges

Daniel Diaz lives alone now, by himself in his Signal Hill apartment, a space steeped in  memories.

He and his husband, Robert Morris, had been providing care for Diaz’s mother, Gloria, since 2012 in their apartment. Morris died in 2018; Mrs. Diaz died in 2020. Vases that he and Morris had collected over the years line the hallway, as well as photographs from the day they were married at the Belmont Brewery in Long Beach. A signed thank-you note and photo of Julie Andrews is poised on the mantel, from the time Diaz helped the actor find a good hotel reservation at his travel agency job. In the living area sit two matching recliners, one now unused. Plants decorate the balcony, including an amaryllis that Morris had planted for Diaz, as a surprise, several years ago.

Diaz is one of 2.7 million LGBTQ++ adults older than age 50 in America. About 9% of all caregivers in the U.S. are LGBTQ++.

Members of the LGBTQ++ community also provide care at a much higher rate — 1 in 5 LGBTQ++ people provide care, compared to 1 in 6 non-LGBTQ++ people, according to SAGE, a national advocacy and services organization for LGBTQ+ elders.

This population faces unique challenges — they are twice as likely to live alone and four times more likely to not have children, who often provide caregiver support as people age.

“Caregiving is often provided by families and more specifically, by children,” said Sherrill Wayland, Director of Special Initiatives at SAGE. “So there’s always a concern of who we [as the LGBTQ+ community] will turn to, should we need that level of caregiving support. Many LGBTQ folks’ families of choice are oftentimes same-age peers. So if you’re aging and your friends are aging, and you all start to experience increased health disparities as we age — the support circle becomes even more fragile.”

They are also much more likely to be caregiving in isolation, which often augments stress and burnout.

There is a lack of specific resources for the LGBTQ+ caregiver community, but Wayland points to a national 24/7 hotline that SAGE has partnered with United Way Worldwide to develop for LGBTQ+ elders. “Prior to the pandemic, we were seeing 20 to 30 phone calls a month. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen the numbers rise to nearly 300 calls a month coming into the hotline,” SAGE officials said. “The intensity of those calls has only gotten more, as people continue to struggle with emotional well-being, food insecurity, housing crises, health concerns.”

Rigors of dementia

Diaz grew up in La Puente, the youngest of three children. At age 19, he contracted the West Nile Virus, and lost his ability to speak and walk. His mother quit her job as a teacher’s aide at a school to take care of him — first in the hospital, then at home — for 11 years. At several turns, they almost lost him; they even purchased a cemetery plot. “She was by my side, always. I would say she gave her life up for me,” Diaz said. “We almost lost the house with my medical expenses, too.” He was bedridden and used a wheelchair for many years, and with the support of physical, occupational, and speech therapy, gradually regained the ability to speak and walk — first with a walker, then a cane, then on his own two feet — at age 31.

Nearly 15 years later, when Diaz’ mother was diagnosed with dementia, and his sister, who had cared for Mrs. Diaz, was diagnosed with colon cancer — Diaz said it was his turn. “[Mom] always used to say, ‘Please, please don’t leave me. Don’t leave me,’ and I said ‘Mom, I will never leave you. I will never leave you.’ It was my time to sacrifice my life for her. And I think — I hope I did a good job,” he said.

His husband Morris was supportive, as he had previously worked as a nurse. “He said to me, ‘If we can take care of your mom, don’t put her away. Don’t put her away in a nursing home, because she won’t last,’” Diaz said.

Before Mrs. Diaz was on medication, however, her dementia caused her to act out. “She wasn’t in her right mind. She would hit my partner with her purse, and call him bad names,” said Diaz. “One time I was working with her in the house, and she got mad at me, and she said ‘You guys are nothing but a bunch of (anti-gay slur). I know how you are, you’re (anti-gay slur).’” Diaz tried his best to not be hurt by her words. “I know not to, when people are like that, you know? But it still hurts though, to hear things like that, especially coming from your family. But I know not to take it to heart — because she wasn’t in her right mind. She would curse, and [when we were] growing up, she never ever cursed — she was a good mom, and she was brought up in a Catholic family. But during the time when she was not on medication, she was acting up and cursing.”

One of his fondest memories was a day he was feeling particularly burnt out. Morris said he’d watch his mother, so Diaz went to take a long shower. “I took my time, and when I got dressed, I came outside to the living room. And I saw them together on the sofa. She was laying in his arms, and he was holding her and she was sleeping. And that just warmed my heart to see her like that.” 

“She was my best friend,” Diaz said. “Besides my partner, he was my best friend too.”

‘What kept me going was my mom’

Diaz and Morris met by chance in 1999: Diaz had been working in sales and marketing in downtown Los Angeles, making the 45-minute commute from his family home in La Puente. One day on his way back, he had to go to the bathroom. He found the nearest bar, a small establishment, and upon coming out he looked around at the pool tables, the darts on the wall, the patrons, and realized it was the Gold Coast — a gay bar. “I didn’t know that,” he said with a laugh. “I had never been in that area, and I had never, never, ever been into a bar like that.”

Diaz stopped for a glass of water. Morris, who was sitting by him, asked if he spoke Spanish. Diaz didn’t, Morris did. Diaz marveled at his words. A connection was made.

They moved in together shortly after, in the early 2000s, and married in 2014. Morris transitioned from nursing and became a science teacher, Diaz continued to work in sales for boutique hotels. Before they took on full-time caregiving, they enjoyed dinners out, and small trips along the California coast and to Florida to visit Morris’s parents, but never for too long — Diaz wanted to be close to home to be able to help his mother.

In 2017, Morris got up in the middle of the night to use the restroom, tripped over a box in the hallway, and broke his knee. Diaz began juggling caregiving for both his mother and husband — a constellation of hospital trips, blood transfusions and care coordination.

Six months later, in February of 2018, Morris’s blood platelets dropped dangerously low and he was admitted to the emergency room for septic shock. Diaz couldn’t come with him. “I felt so guilty. I still do. I wasn’t there for him like I should have been. But I couldn’t leave my mom alone, I felt so caught in between.”

Diaz’ sister came an hour later to care for their mother, and Diaz spent the week by Morris’ side in the hospital in Long Beach. “In the ER, the doctor said, ‘Your friend, he’s not very good,’ and that made me mad, because that was my partner, we were legally married. I didn’t want to say anything, because I didn’t want to cause any trouble, and I just wanted them to take good care of him.”

Morris was later transferred to the ICU. “He lasted for about a week,” said Diaz, between sobs. “I really was hoping for a miracle… but everybody knew except for me. I was probably in denial… I stayed there, and was just hoping, but it was never meant to be.”

“I had to make that decision to have to pull the plug,” said Diaz. “I mean, that was so hard. I never want to go through that again in my life with anybody. To see somebody you loved like that, and a couple of seconds later, when the machine was turned off, to not just see them alive anymore.”

Morris died surrounded by Diaz and his family, and their neighbors. “My neighbors and my sister… tried to do as much as they could for me but it was never the same. Everyone used to say that they never saw a love like we had. We loved each other, and I miss him to this day.”

“What kept me going was my mom,” said Diaz. Two weeks later, after things had settled down, his mother returned to live with him — she would live out the rest of her life with him.

At first, she kept asking him where Morris was. “I had to keep reminding her, ‘He’s no longer with us. Mom, it’s just me and you, we have to look after each other. We have to take care of each other.”

Diaz and his mother spent their days, months, and years looking at pictures together, watching Turner Classics, and talking on the phone with their relatives. When the pandemic hit, it was just the two of them. Diaz would wheel her out to the balcony to look at their plants and they would admire the amaryllis that Morris planted many years ago.

Mrs. Diaz’ passing was much more peaceful. “I knew that it was coming,” Diaz said. “And that she had lived a good long life.”

Diaz’ mother is buried on top of his father at the Queens of Heaven Catholic Cemetery — the same cemetery where Diaz himself has a plot. Morris is close by, but cannot share Diaz’s plot — as the cemetery doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages. “Well, we discussed that as long as he’s in the same cemetery,” said Diaz. “That’s just how it is.”

Diaz continues to look for signs, reasons to go on. He walks with a cane outside now — preventatively. “My doctor says, ‘If you fall, you may break a hip, you’re alone. And you have nobody there now to help you’ — because [Morris] was always by my side, when we used to go out to the store.”

In a particularly difficult moment this year, the amaryllis bloomed — a deep, lovely red. “He was watching over me,” Diaz said. “It is a good sign from him to me — his love.”

This article originally appeared in Los Angeles Daily News on May 18, 2022.

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