LGBTQ older adults today have lived through enormous amounts of change, from a time when their preferences were considered psychological disorders to a time when their right to marry is protected throughout the United States.

But, as documented in the film Gen Silent, older LGBTQ adults have legitimate concerns about being open about their identities in the context of home care, assisted living and other aging services settings. While older LGBTQ adults have spent the majority of their lives around people who support them, they are removed from that familiarity when they enter long-term care environments. Many feel the need to go back into the closet in order to protect themselves as they become older adults and begin to require medical care.

For too long, aging services providers have not adequately served this community. These are some of the challenges LGBTQ older adults face — and how many aging services providers are making changes to welcome everyone.

History’s legacy

Even as the recent past has seen enormous leaps forward for LGBTQ rights, there’s still a long way to go before every person can feel comfortable being open about their identity. According to The National LGBTQ Task Force, “over 55% of LGBTQ people report being mistreated in a medical setting and 70% of transgender people report mistreatment when seeking health care.” It’s clear why people who have experienced this mistreatment might mistrust medical professionals, put off seeking care and be hesitant to be themselves in an assisted living community or other long-term care setting.

The legacy of discrimination has also created economic disparities, each of which presents health challenges that may contribute to a need for long-term care. While married LGBTQ couples in the United States can now access many insurance benefits that were so long denied them, older LGBTQ adults have spent most of their lives without these benefits, and may have lasting economic and health effects. For example, a 2011 report by the University of California, Los Angeles Center for Health Policy Research found that older LGBTQ adults have more health problems than their straight counterparts with equivalent incomes.

The National LGBTQ Task Force has also documented the economic challenges facing many older LGBTQ people. For example, “lesbians who are 65 or older are twice as likely to be poor as heterosexual married couples.” Throughout their lives, transgender people are far more likely to live in extreme poverty than the general population.

Other health concerns contribute to needs for care. For those living with HIV, the risks of a number of other health problems are increased, and some age-related diseases tend to occur earlier in life for HIV-positive people than for their HIV-negative peers.

Meanwhile, according to Kathleen LaTosch, special projects consultant at Affirmations, a Detroit LGBTQ community center, LGBTQ older adults of this generation “are less likely than their heterosexual counterparts to have children or other nuclear family members to support their aging, and they are also more likely to be caring for a friend or family member.” It’s clear that aging services communities need to improve care for LGBTQ older adults.

How aging services providers are becoming more inclusive

Fortunately, many aging services providers are working to change things. Groups like Services & Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Elders (SAGE), which runs the National Resource Center on LGBT Aging, have brought these concerns forward and created resources to guide these efforts. Their recommendations include:

  • Include LGBTQ older adults in marketing and places where resident photos are displayed to promote a welcoming atmosphere

  • When possible, provide restrooms that agoog

  • re single-stall and gender-neutral

  • Partner with LGBTQ community groups

  • Start or provide space for LGBTQ discussion groups or programming

  • Train staff in the importance using each person’s preferred pronoun and name

  • Establish visitation policies that are inclusive of all types of families

  • Seek feedback and recommendations from LGBTQ community members to continually improve services

Chicagoland Methodist Senior Services is proud to be located in the heart of Andersonville, a neighborhood that is home to many LGBTQ individuals. We’re also proud of the work we are doing to make our communities inclusive and welcoming to people of all gender identities and sexual orientations, including those who are already a part of our community and those who will move into our communities in the future.

Whatever your sexual orientation or gender identity, we welcome you to contact us to learn more about the support and care we offer to older adults in the Chicago area. If you work with older adults and want to learn more about LGBTQ inclusion, please join us on June 15 for a presentation on Cultural Competency with LGBTQ Elders, co-sponsored by Center on Halsted and Elderwerks. You can RSVP by calling (773) 596-2296 or e-mailing mullin@cmsschicago.org.