With America aging at an unprecedented rate, the healthcare debate as it pertains to shortages of care is set to rage on for decades. But for those seniors in the LGBTQ community, they have an entirely different set of circumstances that is causing them concern.
In 2016, there were approximately 46 million Americans 65 or older. By 2060, that number is expected to grow to 98 million. What also is growing is an aging population base that is becoming more racially, ethnically, and socially diverse — including how these seniors identify.
According to a joint report titled Caregiving in the U.S. by the AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving, 9 percent of senior adults have identified themselves as LGBTQ. It’s a community that’s growing, and one that has fewer options than those in the heterosexual community. It’s also a community that is battling discrimination, even from the president.
LGBTQ Seniors are Isolated and Overwhelmed
LGBTQ caregiving is significantly different than regular care. For starters, LGBTQ seniors don’t always have family members to help them. And when they do have family, they’re often estranged from them or they’re too independent to ask for help.
This problem is usually non-existent for the general population of seniors, as 85 percent of caregivers are family members, and estrangement isn’t usually an issue. Which is why those aging members of the LGBTQ community must rely on close-knit groups of friends ― peers who, unfortunately, are also in need of care themselves.
As told by the AARP, this is the situation for Cindy Mermin, 78, and her wife, Helen McDermott, who is 84. McDermott suffers from dementia, and the couple’s initial response was to become more isolated, as they were already private people. To complicate matters, neither felt they could reach out to those family members who couldn’t cope with the two of them being gay.
“We’re from a generation that was not perfectly comfortable being gay,” says Mermin. “We were closeted and afraid.”
According to SAGE, an organization trying to improve the lives of LGBTQ seniors, people in this community are two times more likely to be single than the general population, and three to four times less likely to have children. To complicate matters further, LGBTQ seniors are often less financially prepared after decades of workplace discrimination and lower wages. Specifically, an estimated 23 percent of gay and bisexual American males live below the poverty line.
Reluctance of Using Senior Resources
When most seniors need help, even when family isn’t an option, they turn to community resources like senior centers, meal programs, housing assistance, and food stamps. But according to Prepare to Care, a joint publication by SAGE and the AARP, LGBTQ seniors are 20 percent less likely to use these resources.
Alex Kent, a caregiving consultant at SAGE, says that even the seniors who have been openly living as gay couples for decades feel uneasy about moving into retirement facilities. “I’ve seen so many people who’ve been living happily out, and they enter rehab or a retirement place, and they’re so vulnerable,” says Kent. “They’re not secure. Even as couples, I’ve seen them introduce themselves as sisters rather than admit they’re lesbians.”
According to Caregiver.org, much is dependent on where LGBTQ seniors live, as care and support varies widely. Seniors living in large cities with large LGBTQ communities may find what they need, thanks to support organizations and social networks that are in place, including dedicated LGBTQ clinics, living facilities, and retirement communities.
In smaller cities and towns, however, the chances of receiving similar support and care is much less likely. This results in the needs of those seniors going mostly unnoticed orr, even worse, in discrimination and mistreatment.
A recent survey found that LGBTQ seniors expected to be treated with respect and dignity in their later years of life. However, one in five also admitted to fearing the worst ― double discrimination, for being old and for being gay.
When it comes to senior care living facilities, 41 states don’t have any housing laws in place that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. Homophobia in these facilities, whether by staff or other residents, can result in rude comments and even a problem with the quality of care that should be provided.
First Isn’t Always Best
For anyone who’s a fan of sports, you’ve likely heard aging black sports heroes talk about the discrimination they faced during their playing days. Bill Russell, considered the greatest winner in all of team sports, couldn’t dine in certain restaurants with his white Boston Celtics’ teammates. For others, like major league baseball player, Moses Fleetwood Walker, just getting the chance to play proved nearly impossible.
Isn’t it possible that the majority of problems this generation’s senior members of the LGBTQ community are facing can be directly attributed to being The First?
In a 2007 study of caregivers of gay and lesbian seniors, one adult son of a homosexual father had this to say: “My dad’s generation was more conservative, more guarded… So they are [more] reluctant to accept help… My dad wouldn’t want to be stigmatized as a [gay man].”
Wouldn’t want to be stigmatized as a [gay man]. That’s a telling comment, and one that’s echoed by others. Similarly, when talking about the problems facing LGBTQ seniors, Mermin remarked, “Our generation is uneasy all the time.”
The world has a way of imposing its will and prejudices upon most people. Aging members of the LGBTQ community grew up in different times. Times when marriage implied one man and one woman, times when everything was viewed more rigidly, and when ideas of family, and especially sexuality, were very black and white.
There seems to be a decidedly different mindset between LGBTQ seniors and LGBTQ millennials, who appear to be more comfortable being out. In a 2016 survey conducted by GLAAD, 20 percent of 18 to 34-year-olds identified themselves as LGBTQ, while only 5 percent in the 72+ age group did so. In fact, the percentages went down as age went up, potentially caused by aging seniors going “back into the closet” when faced with prejudices.
The pioneers always have it the hardest. From black athletes to literal pioneers who moved West in the late 1800s and early 1900s, these groups suffered so the next generation wouldn’t have to — at least, not as much. Hopefully the difficulties and cultural stigmas facing today’s LGBTQ seniors will help pave the way for a future when people are more open-minded and compassionate and accepting of the inevitable truth ― though we are different, we are nonetheless deserving.