By Jacqualine Hardy

Behind that disarming smile lies a steely resolve to ensure that all of our over 55 LGBTQI community stay active, healthy, connected and vocal. When you meet Russ, you realise how passionate he is about delivering what the elder community are asking for. 

So, what do our elders want?

They want to stay connected. One of the best ways of reducing social isolation is creating safe spaces where everyone feels included and welcomed. Safe and inclusive spaces allow us to share health information specific to older LGBTQ communities and direct people to friendly service providers that understand our lived experiences and histories.

The LOVE Project (Living Older Visible and Engaged), which he co-ordinates for ACON, offers safe spaces, community led activities and great conversations. The project is a place where elders have a voice, are heard and can reconnect, with their peers, no matter your identity.

Russ came to ACON 12 years ago as a volunteer counsellor while he was completing his Social Science degree. For him it was a life change from cooking and restaurant management. Russ said, good people, good timing and fate have supported my journey at ACON. I was very lucky that things just fell into place.He had finally found his calling although he does admit, I still get enormous joy from preparing and sharing food. 

In the years since, Russ has co-ordinated ACONs Sexuality and Gender Diverse Ageing Programs he has forged partnerships with organisations such as Sydney City Council, the Seniors Rights Service and Uniting Aged Care, worked closely with caring and supportive colleagues at ACON and networked with a cross-section of LGBTQI individuals and organisations to support the elder members of our community that need it most.

The LOVE Project is more than a weekly zoom meeting, although that has been the first port of call for new members during lockdowns. There is also a monthly facetoface meeting held at ACON (starting back in 2022) and a whole range of activities and events that are held in Sydney and regional locations throughout the year. Recently the LOVE Project partnered with ACONs Here For Women project to produce a well-attended afternoon called A Social Movement. In all activities and events, LGBTQI elders are welcomed and have access to opportunities where they share their lived experiences and stories, indulge in writing, arts or music, learn about supporting their physical and emotional wellbeing, go on field trips, take part in intergenerational conversations and listen to community speakers.

Afternoon Delightis a highly anticipated annual event, held in Sydney and regional locations, accessing as many of our elder community as possible. Supported by Queer Screen, the community comes together to watch a feature film and shorts with their partners and friends, then indulge in a delicious afternoon tea while having access to a range of ACON programs, LGBTQI inclusive services and health information.

 Di Wilde, a lesbian memoirist from Western Australia, has been hooking up with the weekly zoom meetings for four months now, despite a three-hour time difference and being so far away. I feel like a different person and look forward to the zoom meetings each week. Theyve helped me get through the isolation of COVID and Ive made many friends. I find Russ so accepting and welcoming. He always goes out of his way to include everyone and makes you feel heard. This is my community.

Trevor Pritchard is a long-term member of the Love Project, Treasurer/Vice President of Mature Aged Gays and treasurer of the Pride History Group. Russwelcoming and engaging chairing of zoom meetings has resulted in participants feeling a sense of belonging to the group and a concern for one another. This has been particularly beneficial during the lockdowns.

Michael OKeefe, an artist and sculptor, is a regular on zoom. For me the LOVE Project has been a lifeline. Its saved my life.

ACONs primary focus is on HIV prevention and support but we also support the broader LGBTQIcommunity with a range of projects and activities. Russ concludes, LGBTQI elders have so many ways that they can connect and become involved, to whatever degree they feel comfortable.

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