Aging even tougher for gays and lesbians

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Isolation, fear of bias exacerbate concerns that all seniors share

By Lisa Anderson | Chicago Tribune correspondent
October 21, 2008
NEW YORK “” Getting old isn’t easy for anyone.

But aging poses particular problems for members of the nation’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or LGBT, community. Compared with heterosexual counterparts, many more of them are socially isolated, fear discrimination from health-care providers, live alone and don’t have children or other close relatives to call upon for help.

Those were among the challenges addressed by the 4th National Conference on LGBT Aging, which drew more than 600 participants during its recent three-day run here.

Organized by SAGE, or Services & Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Elders, a 30-year-old, New York-based non-profit agency with 10 affiliates around the country, the conference was sponsored, for the first time, by AARP, the national lobbying organization representing older Americans.
Nationally there are about 3 million LGBT people over the age of 55, a number projected to grow to nearly 4 million in 10 years, according to SAGE. There are at least 40,000 LGBT Chicagoans over 55 years old, according to a 2003 study conducted by the Chicago Task Force on LGBT Aging.

As the oldest of the 80 million Baby Boomers turn 65 in 2011, there will be many “Gayby Boomers” among them. There is a key difference between these Boomers and prior LGBT generations, members of which often spent their lives hiding their sexual orientation.

Due to the dramatic social changes during the lives of LGBT Boomers””such as the gay-rights movement and same-sex marriage””many more of them felt comfortable publicly acknowledging their sexual orientation. Some 44 percent are “completely out” and 31.7 percent are “mostly out,” according to “Out and Aging: The MetLife Study of Lesbian and Gay Baby Boomers,” conducted by Zogby International and released by MetLife in 2006.

As a result, gerontologists and other specialists on LGBT aging at the conference said they expect this generation of LGBT elders “” like Boomers generally “” to demand treatment from care providers and residential programs that not only is better than what prior generations received, but that addresses issues such as sexual orientation and sexual behavior among the elderly.

The top concerns expressed by these seniors about aging generally are shared by all seniors, according to Jean Quam, a dean at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, who worked on the MetLife study. Their greatest fears: being unable to cope, being dependent, being sick or disabled, outliving their income, becoming confused and being alone.

“The things we’re talking about are true for most seniors. They just have particular twists in our context and can be exacerbated in our context,” said Michael Adams, executive director of SAGE.

For example, LGBT seniors have one worry not shared by most heterosexuals: discrimination. “One of the most frightening findings” of the MetLife study was that 26 percent were concerned about discrimination and 20 percent “have little or no confidence that they will be treated with dignity and respect as an LGBT person by their health-care professionals” in old age and at the end of their lives, said Kimberly Acquaviva, a professor at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, who worked on the study.

In some cases, fear of discrimination or feeling unwelcome drives LGBT seniors to hide their orientation, even if they had been open about it before. “People think, ‘I’m safer in the closet,’ ” said Adams.

There also are differences in resources for aging LGBT people and their heterosexual counterparts.

LGBT seniors are twice as likely to live alone; half as likely to have a life partner or significant other; half as likely to have close relatives to call on for help; and four times less likely to have children to help them, according to a study sponsored by SAGE and the Brookdale Center for Healthy Aging & Longevity at New York’s Hunter College.

Even if LGBT people have partners, that relationship may not be acknowledged by health-care and other providers. At a discussion moderated by Serena Worthington, director of Chicago’s SAGE at the Center on Halsted, Beatrice Green described how a hospital failed to notify her when her 75-year-old partner of 25 years developed an infection, despite all of the contact information and instructions Green had supplied. “They were treating her as a single person who had no relatives in the area because she wasn’t married,” said Green, who works with the Senior Independence Project in Shorewood, Wis.

Financial security, a challenge for all seniors, is more precarious for LGBT couples because they are not eligible for Social Security spousal and survivor benefits, Adams said. He added that is true even for legally married same-sex couples because the federal government does not recognize those marriages under the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act.

Another problem for LGBT seniors is finding affordable housing in senior communities seen as LGBT-friendly. That is defined as a place where “people are respected and get the same quality of care regardless of their sexual orientation. They can be who they are””to be the stereotypical gay man or butch woman””and they wouldn’t have other residents isolate them or call them names,” said Hope Barrett, director of community initiatives at Chicago’s Howard Brown Health Center, one of America’s leading LGBT health care organizations.

Such facilities are few, said Adams, noting that SAGE is launching the first interactive online resource for LGBT-friendly housing on its Web site

“We are not at all ready for what’s up ahead,” said Barrett, referring to the growing number of aging Boomers. “It’s really a tsunami waiting to happen, and we’re ill-equipped to meet all the demands and the services folks will require.”

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