Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Elders Search for Safe Havens

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When Suzanne L. Dibble, RN, DNSc, professor emerita of the University of California, San Francisco School of Nursing, was looking for assisted living care for her elderly father about four years ago, she was also thinking about her own future.

She and Jeanne DeJoseph, CNM, PhD, FAAN, her partner of 24 years, were both nurses. They knew the importance of planning for a time when they could no longer manage a large house in the suburbs.

But the assisted living communities Dibble looked at near her San Francisco Bay Area home did not seem welcoming to her. They felt stiff and formal. The women wore dresses to dinner every night. Brochures featured only heterosexual couples.

“I did not see a single place that I could be comfortable in,” Dibble says.

For years, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender elders have remained almost invisible, even in places such as the Bay Area, which prides itself on tolerance and diversity. Many fear going into assisted living or skilled nursing facilities or getting home health care, say those who work in agencies serving gay and lesbian elders. They often retreat into the closet, rather than face scornful remarks of fellow residents or possible discrimination from caregivers.

But a growing number, led by aging gay and lesbian baby boomers, are starting to assert themselves. They are familiar with anti-discrimination laws and not afraid to make sure those laws are enforced. They are looking for retirement complexes and assisted living facilities that not only tolerate but welcome them. In some cases, they are partnering with developers and investing in retirement and assisted living communities that market exclusively to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender elders.

In response to this group, as well as to comply with new state anti-discrimination laws, some agencies and companies that serve the elderly in California are actively working with staff and clients to become more welcoming to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender elders, including offering training for nurses and other healthcare workers.

“There are such simple things that, when you are LGBT, make the biggest difference,” says Nancy Flaxman, MSW, aging resource specialist at openhouse, a San Francisco non-profit housing and service organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender elders.

“Nurses should know that if they become aware of this issue, it could be that they are the only person that a patient or a resident feels comfortable coming out to,” Flaxman says.

Fearful, isolated, and alone

An estimated 2.4 million Americans over 55 are gay, lesbian, or bisexual, according to researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles. But many hide behind a wall of fear and isolation, say Flaxman and others who work with this group.

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