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Imagine 485 years. That’s 15.3 billion seconds, give or take a few.

For the 12 LGBT+ older adults profiled in the ground-breaking project “Not Another Second,” it represents the collective time in which they lived either double lives or suppressed their true identities. (Note: Older adults and those in the exhibit prefer to use the term LGBT+.)

Celebrating the time still ahead is the concept for a multimedia project—an interactive photographic art exhibit, a 14-minute video, a 148-page coffee-table book and a website. These older adults’ stories, photos, and insights have garnered enormous attention and international acclaim.

The project is a collaboration between Watermark Retirement Communities and SAGE, the world’s largest and oldest organization dedicated to improving the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender older people.

The exhibit has been greeted enthusiastically since its opening, in January 2021 at the art gallery within The Watermark at Brooklyn Heights in New York. It is expected to begin traveling to other Watermark communities around the country later this year.

It’s only the first of several projects focusing on the stories and lifetimes of older adults of many different cultures that the provider is planning over the next several years. The goal is to show the diversity, impact, and importance of older adults and what they have learned.

The inaugural exhibit for the community’s gallery and in the provider’s program has proven both popular and moving.

“‘Not Another Second’ has been lauded by stellar press coverage, gone viral in international social media, and has been sold out during its entire exhibition run in Brooklyn,” says Rocco Bertini, the executive director of The Watermark at Brooklyn Heights.

“Having a public art exhibit like this promotes more exposure to the building. For the residents of the building, it is exciting for them. It creates a sense of liveliness for our residents to see people come into the building to see this wonderful exhibit.”

The exhibit and book feature a series of compelling portraits by renowned German photographer Karsten Thormaehlen, known for his award-winning series “Happy at 100,” which focused on centenarians around the world. “Not Another Second” includes stories from each participant detailing personal journeys of how and when they decided to live openly as well as of finding love and companionship. The 12 individuals come from diverse backgrounds and include a former politician, military veterans, a Stonewall survivor, and a Black Panther.

And with each story comes a number— the years of their lives spent not being their true selves. The numbers range from 61 (Paul Barby, the first openly gay male candidate to run for Congress) all the way down to 0 (Lujira Cooper, an openly gay Black woman from New York City who overcame poverty and homelessness to create a better life for herself). There are also two couples (115 and 56 years lost, collectively) who are profiled.

The genesis for the project goes back nearly five years to a meeting that Watermark president and CEO David Barnes and chairman David Freshwater attended. At the meeting they heard firsthand about the unique concerns that some older LGBT+ people had with moving into senior living communities, including fear of discrimination and concern they would not receive the same quality of care as other residents. Barnes remembers feeling disturbed and saddened by what he heard and began looking for ways to ensure Watermark’s welcoming commitment to all.

This led Watermark, which manages 65 communities in 21 states, to become the first nationwide company of senior independent living, assisted living and memory care residences to pursue SAGECare Platinum credentials for all its communities.

“The meeting was an eye-opener,” Barnes says. “Watermark is an inclusive, welcoming company. Reaching out to the LGBT+ community has been, in some ways, a natural outcome of our commitment to doing the right thing as well as our culture of person-centered care.”

Pride in their neighbor

One person chosen to participate in the project is Ronnie Ellis Jr., a resident at Watermark’s The Fountains at The Albemarle in Tarboro, N.C., a small town of about 11,000 people.

Ellis, who moved into The Fountains in 2019, is well known in his native Raleigh as a founder of the Society for the Preservation of Historic Oakwood, where he and several neighbors helped save the 19th-century neighborhood from a planned expressway in the 1970s.

Julie Daugherty, executive director of The Fountains at The Albemarle, says that when Watermark began looking for participants in “Not Another Second,” Ellis was the first name to come to mind. She called him immediately and told him she thought it would be an amazing opportunity, and he said he would think about it. Eventually he agreed, and Daugherty couldn’t be more thrilled that he did.

Seeing him participating “was like a proud momma moment for me, even though he is very much my elder,” Daugherty says. “We were very excited to have him be a part of a national event. For little old Tarboro to have someone be a part of that was just awesome.”

Ellis, 79, reveals that he “lost” 54 years. He met Earl, the love of his life, in his 30s. For a quarter-century, they kept a low-profile relationship to protect Earl’s status as a public school principal, but they eventually came out and lived together as a couple until Earl’s death. “I came out, and I am glad I did, because we had a good life together and did lots of wonderful fun things,” Ellis says in the book.

For Ellis, the opportunity to participate in “Not Another Second” has allowed him to “spread the word and try to help other people who might have problems with coming out as gay,” he says. “There were only 12 of us chosen, so it was an honor to be selected and to share my story with everybody.”

“A pioneer”

In June, The Fountains community honored Ellis with a special book-signing event and reception. More than 60 people attended, and all 35 copies of the book, which helped raise funds for local LGBT+ youth, were sold.

“I was just surprised at the people that did come out that I would not have thought would be that much into the gay community,” Ellis says. “I was real pleased with the event. It was just a fun and uplifting day.”

“We had a wonderful response to the book signing,” Daugherty says. “Ronnie is very well-loved in the community and a pillar of not only our community here in Tarboro, but also the historical area that he helped to rejuvenate back in Raleigh.”

“When I spoke at the reception, I described Ronnie as a pioneer for others. That’s what he is. He told me it does his heart good to be able to watch couples be couples today, when he had to hide everything when he was growing up.”

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