Discrimination in the LGBT Elderly Community

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April Shiebler

My time at work is spent in an atmosphere of advocacy for people with every kind of disability imaginable. I started working with people with disabilities when I was seventeen years old and continued along that path. However, my passion is not limited to the disability community. I have a deep belief that every human being has the right to live a life that is free from discrimination and oppression. I am not opposed to conflict or consequences, and support a competitive atmosphere in order for people to exercise their minds, grow and strive to be the best they can. I also know that we all have to go through some challenging times in order to shape who we are. However, the challenging times people face should not include discrimination of any kind.

It is 2008… I am saddened, outraged and embarrassed that many groups are still facing mountains of discrimination, basically because ignorance and intolerance are epidemics in our society. The LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual and Transgendered) community faces discrimination that most of us are aware of in one way or another. As stated above, I do my best to value all people and I strongly believe that every person has the right to live a life free from discrimination. With that said, I was recently humbled a bit when I attended a lecture by SAGE at the Aging Concerns Unite Us conference in Albany. I realized that aging or elderly LGBT individuals face discrimination and difficulty accessing services in a way I have never considered. I was aware that there are immense challenges in the aging community as well as the LGBT community… I just never thought about the overlap between the communities. I assumed we all age the same. I was very wrong.

According to an article by SAGE:

  • LGBT seniors lack traditional family support and are more reliant on formal support systems than their straight counterparts.
  • Fear of discrimination and abuse make LGBT seniors five times less likely than non-LGBT seniors to access crucial social services, including health care, home care, senior centers, housing assistance, meal programs, food stamps and other public benefits.
  • Studies have shown that LGBT seniors wait until they are in a health or financial crisis before seeking help.
  • In one survey reported in the American Association of Physicians for Human Rights, 67% of doctors and medical students reported LGBT patients receiving substandard care or being denied care.
  • In another survey of agencies serving seniors in the United States, 50% said that LGBT seniors would not be welcomed at area senior centers if their sexual orientation were known.

The article continues by stating that many LGBT seniors feel they must go back into the closet to receive the services they need. This impacts the quality of life for LGBT elders by limiting discussion of relationships and life reminiscing which can alienate seniors from their peers. Unfortunately ageism affects most communities as well, and the LGBT community is no exception. “For LGBT seniors, the very community on which they have depended throughout their lives for support, safety, love and affirmation – the very community LGBT seniors especially need in their old age – that community turns its back on them, just as society-at-large shuns aging and its senior members. The result: LGBT seniors are shunned in the straight community for being gay, and the in the LGBT community for being old.”

SAGE provided a list of suggestions (see below) for professionals providing services to seniors. The suggestions are based on the New York State Office for the Aging’s list of Critical questions for Senior Housing: Gay and Lesbian Concerns:

How to be inclusive and supportive of LGBT seniors

Practice Equality

  • Establish a non-discrimination policy for your agency/program/facility that includes sexual orientation and gender identity.
  • Make sure that the policy is well known by posting notices and including information in handbooks and other materials. Clients and staff members need to know about the policy and how it is enforced.

Provide Training

  • All staff members should receive continuing training on diversity issues and cultural competency.
  • Cover issues related to both sexual orientation and gender identity.

Provide Inclusive Materials

  • Make sure that intake, assessment, and information forms are inclusive of all family forms.
  • Use terms such as “significant other” and “partner”, rather than “husband”, “wife” or “spouse”.
  • Broaden the definition of caregiver by simply asking for “other care provider” and a description.
  • Make sure that form choices are broad enough to include a variety of families and caregivers.

Create a Welcoming Environment

  • Use inclusive language (partner, significant other, circle of care).
  • Welcome “chosen family” members in the same way that biological/legal family members are welcomed. Include chosen family in decision making processes.
  • Make symbols of acceptance and diversity visible in your agency/program/facility.
  • Invite speakers, show films, offer presentations on LGBT issues.

Learn about the LGBT Community and Resources

  • Make staff familiar with LGBT organizations and resources in the area and the New York State LGBT Health and Human Services
  • Network Senior Issues Workgroup.
  • Participate with LGBT community leaders in collaborations/networking.

Identify a Consultant

  • Identify a staff person who can be consulted about LGBT issues or problems.
  • Where possible, create networks of support for consultants – with others inside and outside of the agency.

There is a general lack of awareness regarding aging issues in the LGBT community. We can all do our part by incorporating small changes and utilizing the resources in our area. If you work for an agency that provides home care, health care, housing assistance or other public benefits, start taking a look at what you can do to minimize barriers for LGBT individuals. If you feel your organization needs more information or training look for local resources in your area that can provide such information and training. For the Rochester, NY area, start by contacting the Gay Alliance of Genesee Valley.