Are You Aware of the Issues LGBT Elders Face? Let’s Be Inclusive

When thinking of lesbian, gay,bisexual or transgender (LGBT) communities, often times people think of a younger demographic. Yet what about LGBT older adults? What issues do they face? Why don’t we hear about them? Of the estimated 9 million people identified as LGBT in the U.S., at least 1.5 million are 65 and older. And this number is conservative, as many LGBT seniors remain “invisible” both to service providers and to the LGBT community at large.

Some of the challenges LGBT seniors face include: homophobia from those outside of the LGBT community; ageism from within the LGBT community; absence of an informal caregiver system; and isolation. Many LGBT seniors, who may have been “out” earlier in life, go back “into the closet” as they age. Most older people rely on family for support in their later years. For LGBT seniors, however, they may not have children to support them, or have relatives who may not understand or may judge them. A couple true stories shared with our SMP Special Projects Manager, Karen Fazio demonstrate this point.

  • “I have been haunted for years by what happened to two lesbian friends of mine. They had been “married” for more than 50 years. When they both fell ill, their families sent them to separate nursing facilities despite all protests. They each shortly passed away. It was heartbreaking!” ~Vicky E
  • “A woman died shortly after I started as a floor nurse in a nursing facility. I learned this story from staff. She had a stroke and could not speak. Her family decided that her partner of 50+ years had no rights to their property, or to see or make decisions for the patient. The family sold their home and got a restraining order against the partner. These ladies were retired school teachers in their 80’s and were never “out.” They had no legal protection in place.” ~Michelle F

A 2010 research study of the 649 LGBT seniors surveyed in long-term care facilities also shockingly demonstrates some of the issues: 53% or 346 reported abuse/neglect by staff; 89% or 578 reported discrimination by staff; 77% or 500 reported isolation from other residents; and 81% or 526 reported discrimination by residents. Such statistics and personal stories point to a need for change and education among caregivers, professionals and the public at large.

Ways to be inclusive
How do we develop programs, ways of presenting and interacting with the public that show we are an inclusive organization and serve all elders regardless of ethnicity, gender, class, and sexual orientation? We can start with: 1) being aware of the issues and how they affect LGBT seniors; 2) examining our ways/points of contact for people to access our services and making sure they are inclusive; and 3) engaging in any changes to become more inclusive.

These 3 items can be addressed together because as we develop understanding, awareness and respect for LGBT seniors and the challenges they face, we will start to naturally see more inclusive ways of doing things.

Here are some ideas. For example, when someone discloses their gender or sexual orientation to you, don’t skip a beat. Respond and relate just as you would to a heterosexual person. If you are not sure of a person’s gender, use gender-neutral pronouns or open-ended language. Be sensitive when someone comes out; it is not a one-time event, but a life-long process.

With office intake forms, include options for domestic partner, partner, and significant other. Instead of asking questions like, “are you married,”you can ask, “who do you spend your life with”? You can also ask: “who will be coming to visit you?” and “tell me about people who were/are important to you.” We can demonstrate inclusivity and awareness just in the questions we ask, in the words we use and don’t use.

Some other ideas:

  • Include sexual orientation and gender identity in your staff trainings and non-discrimination policy. Project Visibility has a short documentary on this subject based on focus groups with LGBT seniors in Boulder, Colorado. They share their experiences growing up in a homophobic culture, and the unique challenges faced in their aging years.
  • Display positive images of gays and lesbians n your workplace. If books or literature are displayed, be sure to include some gay and lesbian titles.
  • Collaborate with other agencies and social service providers to offer more LGBT services and broaden your outreach area.
  • Include the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender populations in your diversity outreach program for under-served groups.

As more lay people and professionals become aware of the issues facing LGBT seniors and make the necessary changes to be inclusive and welcoming, the more LGBT seniors will feel safe to come “out” and receive the services, support and community they need.

“I’ve learned to be proud of who I am,“ shared one elder man in Project Visibility’s documentary film on LGBT elders. “This is not a moral issue. Why would it be a moral issue to be who we are?” he said smiling. “The more of us who come out, the better. This promotes more understanding. The next generation will be better yet.”


Karen Joy Fletcher

Our blogger Karen Joy Fletcher is CHA’s Communications Director. With a Masters in Public Health from UC Berkeley, she is the online “public face” of the organization, provides technical expertise, writing and research on Medicare and other health care issues. She is responsible for digital content creation, management of CHA’s editorial calendar, and managing all aspects of CHA’s social media presence. She loves being a “communicator” and enjoys networking and collaborating with the passionate people and agencies in the health advocacy field. See her current articles.