Warrior for the Cause

Editor’s note: The John A. Hartford Foundation, the Administration for Community Living (ACL) and The SCAN Foundation fund the Aging and Disability Business Institute, led by USAging. As partners in the Institute, ASA and USAging are collaborating on a series of webinars and articles in Generations Now profiling diverse organizational leaders who are working in cross-sector collaborations.

The concept of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion has saturated the culture—a needed workplace reaction to the racial awakenings of 2020. Some have tried but found it difficult to incorporate into their daily work, and others we might call DEI warriors—those who don’t go a day without fighting like hell to make the world more equitable for all. We’re all better off for these warriors.

ASA RISE Fellow Jennifer Horn falls squarely into category number two. A care manager at the Pikes Peak Area Agency on Aging in Colorado Springs, she has had plenty of reason to fight across her years of life and work experience and isn’t anywhere close to being done with that battle.

The Meandering Path

We’re also lucky she never wanted to do anything except work with older adults, even if it required a rather winding path. Just out of high school she worked in senior living facilities as a resident assistant, then in medication management, then took a break as the losses of the people she was caring for took a toll, so she got a job at the deli at Walmart. At age 19 she worked at Three Cedars AIDS Housing Association of Tacoma, which she describes as her “introduction into blood pathogens, HIV and AIDS and that perspective of caregiving, which also opened my eyes to all the inequities and disparities.”

Horn joined the Navy in 2010 at age 24, working as an aircraft mechanic, and headed into the closet due to the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) policy. DADT was repealed in 2012, by which time most of her cohort knew she identified with the LGBTQ community. Horn finished her undergrad degree in two years via the Navy, realized it wouldn’t pay for a doctorate in geropsychology, so went for an MSW in social work instead. Now she values that switch as she realizes social work offers many more choices for working with older adults.

“I’m so happy now with being a social worker, my work with older adults is not tied to one area, I can focus on food insecurity, housing, transportation—I’m looking at the whole picture, the whole person,” and she’s able to incorporate her DEI work too, as it’s pertinent to each challenge faced in caregiving: housing, food, medical, legal, support services like transportation.

The Pikes Peak AAA serves three counties, and offers tools for caregivers, in particular a six-week course called Powerful Tools for Caregivers (PTC). Horn took a PTC train-the-facilitator course, which allows her to train others. She teaches caregivers communication skills, self-care and how to reframe the common thought process wherein caregivers put themselves last.

‘The real challenge is in identifying these pockets of people, letting them know that I’m here as a point person they can contact.’

Horn also volunteers with Spark the Change Colorado, a statewide mental health and wellness group that provides free one-on-one counseling, including for caregivers. She trains with the counselors there, counting clinical hours required for her license. Horn has volunteered at Spark the Change for a year and a half and last month conducted a DEI training, on its historical and social context, intersectionality and generational trauma transmission. Horn hopes such training provides insight and clarity into why implementing DEI policy and practices is so critical to social work. And she is developing literary support groups focusing on older LGBT+ adults and literature written by LGBTQIA+ authors.

She’s most excited about Spark the Change’s intergenerational programs, especially in her work with LGBTQ elders, noting how important it is for young people to connect with someone who has been in their shoes and experienced what they’re going through. Hearing “I’ve been there and I’ve experienced it, and it’s going to be hard, but we can get through it together,” she said can be invaluable.

Older Adult Challenges

At Pikes Peak she sees the greatest challenges faced by LGBTQ elders, particularly LGBTQ elders of color. “The real challenge is in identifying these pockets of people, letting them know that I’m here as a point person they can contact. The other fallback is understanding that I need to ask people to disclose their situation, but without a support system in place (of those close to them) that’s often hard for them to do.”

The second population Horn concentrates on is veterans, and getting them the help they need from the VA. “I’m not a VA rep and I don’t want to help anyone with their claims,” she said. But she will help with the first step, which is submitting the application for healthcare. “It only takes a week to get an appointment with the VA and then they’re in!” she said.

“I have 90-year-old vets who had never before applied for benefits. They then call me and say thanks. For the longest time I had caregivers calling the congressional office, the VA liaison, and putting pressure on the VA system, just to do its job.”

Horn works closely with her supervisor to ensure Pikes Peak provides the necessary resources that are desperately needed for all populations. “I need it to be more action than just words,” she said. “I need to see them putting in the effort. And I’ve been seeing that effort from colleagues.”

She also sees it as her job to collect data from anyone who is willing to provide it, to demonstrate the demographics in what can be considered a conservative part of the country. And with the backdrop of the Club Q shooting this past November, old fears resurfaced. But, said Horn, “if you look at the community that came out to support Club Q because we’re people, too, it makes me think the pockets of prejudice may be dwindling.”

This positive take doesn’t negate the biggest DEI challenge, which Horn says is gaining support for the population that needs the most protecting, transgender older adults. “Later in life transitioning older adults need 100% support, we need to let them know they are safe, they are understood somewhere, and that they are welcome,” she said. Lots of people tend to confuse sexual orientation and gender identity and “honestly,” said Horn, “it comes down to a social construct—the world likes to put people in boxes. They suggest just going with the flow, but then when people do, they are accused of being too fluid.”

Care Planner Challenges

DEI challenges aren’t only faced by her clients at Pikes Peak, she runs into them in her work, too. “It always comes back to race, ethnicity, gender, age and income, but what it really comes down to is funding. Funders (like AAAs) should look at smaller organizations that are already doing DEI work in their communities and fund them.”

As a care planner, Horn can relate to people on a personal level, and understand their frustrations, for instance those of a Black caregiver who is relieved to find that Horn, too, is Black, making it easier to describe what’s going on, without having to cross a cultural barrier.

And on occasion Horn has to work on her own misconceptions, as sometimes people come in for help and she can’t relate to them. “So I ask myself, what is it about this situation that makes me uncomfortable, why do I feel this way, where was I that made me feel like there was a barrier in our communication? I don’t want it to be a challenge, and generational gaps have to be kept in mind, what people believe, how they grew up—you can’t just take what people say as an offense, unless they are being malicious or intentionally offensive.”

The biggest DEI challenge is gaining support for the population that needs the most protecting, transgender older adults.

Through the ASA RISE Fellowship program Horn realized how important it is to have other people of color in the same room, how good it felt to talk to others like her, and now she no longer feels so alone. Horn has encountered numerous challenges communicating what is required to be truly equitable and take DEI reform seriously, a situation she’s still working through. “If you’re inviting me to the table, don’t quiet me, don’t water down my message,” she said. People may want her in prominent roles, but they also may not always want to hear what she has to say about work culture and DEI policies.

“My work life and balance relates to DEI, not just race, but it is the biggest hurdle to overcome. You have to look at all the intersecting factors, and the more I try to explain, the less people seem to listen,” Horn added. “I brought my full self, but that’s not really what was wanted.”

Some of that energy now goes to work she does elsewhere, such as with ASA, where she is collaborating with a group of ASA RISE Fellows from Cohort 1, on an Equity for Elders pledge program, which they will present at the On Aging conference. Horn is also a board member with ZAMI NOBLA, working as a community researcher for a study with the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, “Meeting the Pandemic Needs of Older Sexual Minority Women.”

Last September Horn was honored with an award from Colorado Publishing House’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion awards celebrating advocacy that creates a more just community. In her acceptance speech she said no one is talking about older adults, or the older LGBTQ community. And she pointed out how there is so much homelessness, yet plenty of empty buildings. And how the sidewalks aren’t wide enough for motorized wheelchairs.

“We have residents who are struggling, and we say we’re representing them, yet some older couples only receive $23 a month for food. And with our large population of older adults who have to take a bus to get anywhere, the bus limits their carry-ons to 4 bags. How is one to get groceries that way?”

Essentially, Horn went off, as her frustration with a lack of real DEI efforts all around reached a boiling point. “What I think of as simple fixes, politics make them seem like a big issue. We follow the AAA mission statement, but we have 16 county governments saying I should follow theirs. … We are so limited by what we can actually do.”

This frustration does not stop Horn from trying to foment small revolutions, though. And training others to do the same. Signs point to her DEI work paying off, as she is finding plenty of opportunities to share her message in venues in Colorado and nationwide.

To hear more about DEI work in aging from Jennifer Horn, sign up for the USAging Webinar on March 6, 2023, “Defining DEI in a Real and Meaningful Way.”

Alison Biggar is ASA's Editorial Director.