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Watermark Retirement Communities is the first nationwide company of senior independent living, assisted living and memory care residences to pursue SAGE Platinum credentials for all its communities. Two Watermark locations in the San Francisco Bay Area – Lakeside Park in Oakland and The Watermark by the Bay in Emeryville – are the latest in Watermark’s commitment to becoming the first national senior living and care company to have all of its communities earn top Platinum credentials from noted LGBT elder advocacy group SAGE. Lakeside Park is the first exclusively memory care community in California to earn the SAGE Platinum credential for its 70 private and semi-private residences configured in “like-home” neighborhoods.

SAGE Programs Improve Lives of LGBT Elders
SAGE provides leading public policy support and personal resources focused on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender elders. Headquartered in New York, the 41-year-old nonprofit organization works on legislation and provides a network for LGBT elders to gain civil rights and live with dignity and respect. Its National Resource Center on LGBT Aging provides educational materials and services that cover a wide range of LGBT elder issues, including abuse and neglect, healthcare, caregiving, Social Security and housing. Through its LGBT inclusion and cultural competency programs, SAGE aims to help organizations and businesses understand the unique challenges of LGBT elders as they seek to live on their own terms. SAGE introduction video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r0yeX5Wg3UQ

Watermark Retirement Communities Embraces SAGECare Credentials Nationally
One of those programs is SAGECare, which awards four levels of credentialing to organizations and businesses that have gone through cultural competency training. It is this program that Watermark has adopted to train its entire workforce so that it can confidently and supportively address issues facing its LGBT residents.

“Watermark Retirement Communities is a leader amongst its peers,” says Hilary Meyer, SAGE chief enterprise and innovation officer who heads SAGECare. “They are setting an incredible example of what it means to truly invest in their staff and residents on LGBT competency.”

Lakeside Park has become the only California community solely dedicated to memory care to receive SAGECare’s Platinum credential in service to LGBT seniors. It earned the top-level Platinum credential last year.

“SAGE training has increased awareness for all of us, about the unique challenges that LGBT seniors face,” says Cheryl Martin, executive director of Lakeside Park and The Watermark by the Bay. “We have learned techniques to balance openness with respect for privacy as well as more inclusive language. We can now go beyond being a warm, welcoming environment to communities with deeper cultural understanding of the perspectives of LGBT individuals, their partners, families and friends.”

Oakland’s Lakeside Park Stories on Adopting SAGECare Techniques
LGBT elders in memory care have special needs that Lakeside Park staff have learned to better address. “In a memory care community, our residents may not have been ‘out’ about their sexuality,” Martin says. “That may change as dementia progresses and the resident does not remember that he or she presented as ‘straight’. This could be ‘a shock’ to family members,” she adds. “Having SAGE training and knowledge is an additional tool in our tool-box to support families with all they are going through.”

One particular instance stands out in Martin’s mind that shows how the SAGE training has helped. A Lakeside Park resident and her partner have created a family who are not direct relatives, but close, loving friends. This “family of choice” is common in the LGBT community.

Usually, staff would only work with the direct family members of a resident. “We were guilty of shutting out the ‘family of choice’ for our resident and her partner,” says Martin. The training gave our entire team an extra level of sensitivity on this issue.

“The team and individual associates became more mindful of partnering with the larger group of ‘chosen family’,” she says. “This has made everyone involved a part of the community family.”

Watermark Commits to Company-wide SAGE Platinum Credentials
In order to gain the top-level Platinum SAGE credential, sites must train at least 80% of their staff. SAGE provides the training resources, which consist of a four-hour intensive session for top management and a one-hour online training for front-line employees.

Watermark communities strive to stay as close as possible to maintaining 100% of trained staff. Training has extended to the corporate office, where company leadership has also taken the four-hour course to earn the Platinum credential. Among the things they learned:

While the Bay Area has a history of LGBT inclusion and activism, there is still a lot of stigma when it comes to finding senior housing.

Tim Johnson, community connections director at the 143 residence The Watermark by the Bay, which provides assisted living and memory care which received its SAGE Platinum credential earlier this year, has heard many stories about LGBT elders who are reluctant to move into senior living communities. “They fear they may not be treated equally, they are concerned that they may not be treated as a human being, that their privacy may be violated and they might be treated with less care and compassion,” he says. “I’m proud this does not happen here,” he adds, “but I know those are the fears that LGBT seniors have and the SAGE training has helped us address those fears without compromising respect or privacy.”

Jerry Fritz Tells His Story as an LGBT Elder
This is Jerry L. Fritz’s very real experience. The 74-year-old says he tried to live as an openly gay man since graduating from high school, but he tended to keep quiet about it at his work places to avoid stigma and discrimination. After leaving the hospital following treatment for heart disease, he moved into a retirement community where he felt he could not live as his real self. “The word ‘gay’ was a dirty word,” he says. A year later, in late January 2019, he moved to The Watermark by the Bay, with its fine amenities and engaging programs, classes and events.

“It was very important for me to be in a gay friendly community,” he says. “I’m tired of being treated like a second-class citizen because I’m gay. I’m thrilled with this place,” he says. “It’s so comforting. I don’t have to second-guess myself when I say something.”

Why Watermark is Pursuing SAGE Credentials
Over 50 percent of Watermark’s national workforce has received the SAGECare training. Eventually all 58 Watermark Retirement Communities locations in 21 states will have SAGECare Platinum credentials to reflect its continued commitment to celebrating diversity.

“Watermark is an inclusive, welcoming company,” says CEO President David Barnes. “Reaching out to the LGBT community was, in some ways, a natural outcome of our commitment to doing the right thing as well as our culture of person-centered care. There is no better time than now to understand and embrace our differences,” he adds. “Although we have experienced decades of activism in the LGBT community, which have resulted in broader rights like marriage equality, acceptance remains far from universal. Expert guidance and training from SAGE will help us gain a deep and lasting understanding and give us the tools we need to carry this vision forward.”

Watermark’s progressive move is an important step for LGBT elders who seek retirement places that recognize and display sensitivity to how they live their lives.

“SAGECare is proud to partner with Watermark Retirement Communities in their commitment to being completely resident-directed in the care they provide at all their communities,” says Hilary Meyer of SAGE. “They have demonstrated a true commitment to having an LGBT-competent staff and creating LGBT-welcoming communities across the U.S.”

SAGE Credentialing Benefits LGBT Employees
While the credential helps potential residents make informed choices, it also gives Watermark an edge in hiring and retaining associates who want to live and work as their true selves. “The atmosphere feels more welcoming since the training,” says Shannon Ruedlinger, Watermark managing director.

The human resources department has added policies that address issues for employees in same-sex marriages or who are transgender, and employees feel they can be open among their colleagues

Ruedlinger speaks of an associate at The Hacienda at the River in Tucson, Arizona, who talks about her home life with her wife. “She feels totally comfortable, as do her fellow employees,” Ruedlinger says. “She knows the community is a safe place for her, filled with caring, respectful co-workers. She knows she can be herself here.”

That openness that’s encouraged among the staff translates into a celebration of all cultures among residents, including those of the LGBT community.

“It’s absolutely fabulous, what they’re doing,” says Fritz, the resident at The Watermark by the Bay. “Every person – straight, gay, bisexual – should have a place to live where they feel as relaxed and comfortable as I do. It’s a feeling I never thought I’d live to see.”

About Watermark Retirement Communities, Inc.
Watermark’s commitment to creating extraordinary communities where people thrive dates back 30 years to when it opened its first retirement community in 1987. A privately held company with a reputation of service, success, growth, integrity and financial stability, Watermark Retirement Communities manages more than 50 retirement communities coast to coast. More About Watermark

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