Although LGBT pride month is celebrated in June each year, we honor and support the LGBT community all year long. While the image of the LGBT movement may often be the young and middle aged, it is critical to remember the senior population is just as important to the community. These seniors face a different set of challenges, including fear of discrimination and struggles finding long-term care communities that will accept and care for them as equals. So how can we address these issues and be more sensitive to LGBT seniors and help provide ongoing support?
LGBT Issues in Elder Care
According to SAGE USA, an advocacy group for LGBT seniors, older LGBT people are twice as likely to be single and live alone than non-LGBT people. They are also four times less likely to have children. At an age where living alone or without assistance is dangerous, LGBT people are quite vulnerable.
SAGE encourages younger LGBT people, and anyone who is interested in helping the elders of their community, to get involved and assist their elders. Digital tools and resources provided by organizations such as SAGE USA and Lotsa Helping Hands are available to connect seniors and help volunteers co-ordinate their efforts so that their elders have the support they need to be safe, including assistance getting to medical appointments and making meals.
Discrimination in Elder Care Communities
LGBT seniors also have to worry about choosing a retirement community or assisted living facility that won’t discriminate against them. According to a survey by Justice in Aging, 78 percent of LGBT residents of long term care facilities said “no” or “not sure” when asked if they were comfortable being open about their sexuality.
Two LGBT elders, Patrick Mizelle and Edwin Fisher, told PBS that although they eventually found a comfortable community, many of the senior facilities they visited raised red flags.
Senior communities are often religiously influenced, as many elders turn to religion for comfort in their golden years. In fact, according to a report by the Movement Advance Project, 85 percent of retirement communities are religiously-affiliated, though not all religions discriminate against LGBT people.
Yet, having had experiences being rejected by religious people, Mizelle and Fisher were anything but comforted by their presence in the communities they toured. “I thought, ‘Have I come this far only to have to go back in the closet and pretend we are brothers?’” Mizelle said.
It may be beneficial to retrain staff at these communities to better address the natural fears of LGBT people. The same Justice in Aging report found that giving staff LGBT cultural competency training makes them twice as likely to be approached by LGBT individuals for help.
However, it’s not just staff who need to be more sensitive to LGBT seniors. Marsha Wetzel, a lesbian and disabled veteran, was harassed and assaulted by the other senior members in the Glen Saint Andrew Living Community in Niles, Illinois.
A lawsuit, filed by the Lambda Legal gay advocacy group, alleges that Wetzel was a called names and physically harassed due to her sexuality. Her partner of thirty years had died before she moved into the community, so Wetzel felt alone in facing this discrimination.
While representatives of the community deny they tolerate any discrimination, Wetzel is struggling to feel safe in her home. “I am scared constantly,” she told PBS, “What I am doing is about getting justice. I don’t want other LGBT seniors to go through what I’ve gone through.”
Housing Designed for LGBT Elders
Another solution to help better protect vulnerable seniors is to open dedicated communities for LGBT seniors, or mixed communities with straight elder allies. SAGE USA has opened two LGBT-friendly housing units, where individuals and LGBT couples applying for a room don’t need to worry that they will face discrimination in the application process or during their stay.
Nationwide, there are 600 other affordable housing units dedicated to LGBT elders. However, experts predict that we will need more to meet the growing population of LGBT seniors. By 2030, the number of LGBT seniors is expected to double from 1.5 million to 3 million.
Those who have an LGBT elder in their life can help advocacy organizations push for more LGBT senior communities and other helpful policy changes that can protect them from discrimination. Consider getting involved with SAGE or other organizations to help support the LGBT community.
Looking for more LGBT information and support? We encourage you to schedule a call with one of the dedicated Aging Life Care Managers™ in our network.