Before Ken Irvine moved to the senior living community The Admiral at The Lake, he was an expert at maneuvering conversations so people wouldn't find out he was gay.
"Back then, if you wanted to be you, you had to be very careful," said Irvine. "When I was a high school teacher, I distracted from questions about my love life by talking about my dogs. When kids would ask me if I had children, I'd say, 'I have the greatest dog, don't you love dogs?' And that's how I avoided the topic. I had a partner, who died of lung cancer, and I had to tell the school he was my cousin because you could only take sick leave to care for family members."
But after living at The Admiral for three years, the 81-year-old has no problem saying what he means.
He said he's enjoyed the freedom to embrace his identity and connect with other LGBTQ+ people in part because of the staff's efforts to create an accepting community.
"No one is hung up on whether you're gay or not gay, and I've met other people who share my viewpoints," Irvine said. "So I'm a happy camper here."
The staff at Admiral on The Lake, 929 W. Foster Ave., aims to "create an enduring, diverse community while empowering residents and staff to lead their best lives," according to project manager Britney Vipham.
"We want you to come as you are," Vipham said. "You don't have to pretend to be something you're not. All we want is kind folks that want to get to know one another and get involved. Whatever your interests are, we probably have something for you."
Pride flags fly throughout the retirement community as an outward show of support, but the staff has intentionally developed an accepting environment by personally connecting with the individuals who live there.
At least 80% of the staff at The Admiral have received in-depth training to gain a better understanding of LGBTQ+ elders' experiences so they can provide culturally competent care, according to its website.
Denise Goch, who's worked at The Admiral for nine years and helps with activity programming, said she brings her full self into work so that others feel comfortable doing the same.
"Instinctually, I tend to know who's on my team, so to speak, so I let people know I'm always there for them to talk to," said Goch, who identifies as bisexual. "We all have a story and if I can somehow coax it out of somebody at their level of comfort, there's that instant connection. I know this generation went through worse than I did, and so love and kindness just rules everything I do."
Since LGBTQ+ residents feel comfortable being themselves, many have made rewarding friendships through informal dinner groups and the various activities available to them both within The Admiral and throughout the city.
Last April 2021, Irvine met with Ken Conrad, 69, who "made it a point" to tell everyone he was gay right when he moved in, Conrad said. The pair of best friendsfondly nicknamed Ken squaredrelated to each other immediately and enjoy sharing stories with each other about their past lives.
"We just have a really good time together and I've learned a lot from him," Conrad said. "Getting to know Ken has been one of my favorite parts of living here."
Residents and staff also benefit from the intergenerational connections made with each other.
"As someone who also identifies that way, it's comforting to see others like myself in a generation that wasn't as accepted," Vipham said. "I think it speaks wonders to the culture we're creating here that being yourself is 100% acceptable, is the norm, and no one thinks twice about it."
"I find it fun working with some of the younger employees," Conrad said. "You can just have a giggle with them and you can always catch their eye to make an inside joke and they'll understand what you're talking about."
This June, residents and staff at The Admiral marched in the Pride Parade and operated a booth at Pride Fest in order to celebrate together and connect with other LGBTQ+ seniors.
"There I was in my cutoff red top and rainbow bandana, hyping up the crowd," Vipham said. "I think what was so wonderful about it was that you didn't need to identify a certain way to be there, the focus was that everyone was supportive and inclusive. We had a blast and we're definitely be doing that again."
Irvine and Conrad said living somewhere they feel accepted and connected to the broader LGBTQ+ Chicago community has made all the difference, but there are other, more tangible perks to living at The Admiral too.
"The great quality of food here, is usually more what I care about, as opposed to interactions other men," Irvine said.
For more information about Admiral at the Lake, visit: admiral.kendal.org/ .