Lyn Kamrath | Contributing Writer
Aging in the United States is challenging to say at least. It is estimated that a shortage of housing for the elderly, age 65 or older, will peak within the next five years. The subculture of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) population faces an even more daunting crisis of aging in the United States.
In “Home at the End of the Rainbow,” B. De Vries estimates that the current LGBT population over the age of 65 is at three million and could increase to four million by the year 2030. LGBT elders are challenged to find elder care housing that is safe and accepting of diversity.
After collecting data from scholarly journals, newspapers, and LGBT websites, I have determined that there are few elderly care communities that currently exists today that are designed to uphold the norms and values of the LGBT community. De Vries writes that the presence of gay and lesbian support and services are rare in North American senior centers. There is no evidence that our current institutions, geared towards the primary group, are prepared to provide the necessary services to the aging LGBT population.
LGBT elders still face discrimination in respect to elderly care housing and have few options when considering an elder care community. De Vries says options are limited to developing housing that nurtures the needs of LGBT or rendering existing housing LGBT friendly-what some have termed the “queering of elderly housing and care environment.”
De Vries says older gay men and lesbians who have struggled to openly acknowledge their sexual orientation often experience resocialization and end up having to go “back to the closet” when they begin to require healthcare services. An issue facing LGBT elders is whether to adopt a façade of legitimacy in order to fit in with the primary culture of elderly housing or live independently with its consequent risks.
Accurate data about older LGBT lives is hard to come by and research is limited. Gabriel Arana in “Log Cabins and Lost Souls: Retirement can be Sweet for Well-Off LGBT Elders, but its Fraught with Perils for Most,” mentions that federal law requires eldercare institutions to report statistics on other groups of minority residents; they are not required, nor do they ask about sexual orientation.
LGBTs are often afraid of the service institutions that support the aging. Linnell Smith in “Gay Boomers are Wary of Homophobic Retirement Care,” mentions a 2006 study of gay and lesbian baby boomers by MetLife Mature Market Institute, more than a quarter of those surveyed were concerned about discrimination as they age, while less than half expressed strong confidence that health-care professions will treat them with “dignity and respect.” Arana says urban centers are usually the heart of gay culture, and the trend is for increasing demand to reside in retirement communities in urban centers.
On-the-ground experience show that the LGBT older adults as a group are at high risk for severe social isolation according to Michael Adams in “An Intersectional Approach to Services and Care for LGBT Elders.” Queer seniors are more likely than their heterosexual peers to live alone; more likely not to have children, or an extended family; more likely to be living in poverty according to Victoria Brownworth in “Looking After Our Lesbian Elders: Where will We Live (And How Can We Afford It?).” The relative absence of partners, adult children, and traditionally defined family members often results in thin social and care networks writes Adam.
Studies have found that for LGBT seniors a “chosen family” of friends and neighbors, including heterosexuals, supplements the biological family. In contradistinction to the value of a chosen family, one recent study found that LGBT seniors with close relations with their biological family were more depressed than those who did not maintain those relationships. Douglas Kimmel in “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Aging Concerns,” says the challenge for LGBT elders appears to be maintaining a positive chose-family support network, replacing aging and deceased members with younger members, and excluding non-supportive biological family members.
Adams writes that LGBT elders face heightened risk of financial insecurity in their later years due to historical inequalities in benefits like Social Security and lower retirement savings reflective of a lifetime of wage and benefits discrimination. They now face a new challenge; remaining openly gay in old age. For many aging gays and lesbians, the notions of senior housing or assisted living revive memories of the ostracism and prejudice they faced in high school. In fact, Smith says some worry old age may mean struggling to pass as heterosexual again.
Current literature indicates that LGBT older adults desire services to support them as they age. At the same time, they fear the intolerance, ridicule, neglect, and sometimes even violence of the professionals and social institutions that provide these services. Laurie A. Carlson in “One Facility’s Experience Using the Community Readiness Model to Guide Services for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Older Adults,” says a majority of LGBT older adults in one qualitative study indicated that they feared the reception they would receive if they sought admission to a traditional long-term care facility.
Arana says according to a 2011 report from the National Academy of an Aging Society, less than one-third of elder care agencies offer gay-sensitivity training. Most nursing homes do not ask on their intake forms if a person has a same-sex partner. Worse, active discrimination drives some back into the closet.
Arana mentions Robert Espinoza, a senior director for public policy and communications at SAGE stating, “You go from a life that is independent and with friends and open and proud and enter a space where you have to re-enter the closet.” This is a deeply troubling pattern, not only because it denies LGBT elders the opportunity to age in place, but also because evidence indicates that the long-term-care sector may be the least prepared to effectively address the needs of LGBT people with culturally competent care according to Adams.
LGBT elderly housing is an issue as it affects over three million elderly LGBT and by outside factors that are not controlled by any one person, but by a society in whole. The heterosexual culture, or primary group, views this subculture of elderly LGBTs as non-existent. LGBTs are a subculture of the heterosexual elderly as they share similar parts of the primary group, but they do have different norms and values.
Our society does not ask about sexual orientation; therefore, it is perceived that it does not exist. The perception is that all elderly fall into the norms and values of socially accepted behavior. LGBT norms say it is okay to hold hands, affectionately hug, or have sexual relations with someone of the same sex. The values of LGBT affirm that it is acceptable for women to have very short hair and dress manly; for men to wear dresses and heels; that men or women can change their physical appearances to change their sexual orientation. The current housing for the elderly is not prepared to acknowledge the altruistic lifestyle of the LGBT community.
LGBTs feel that the only way they can truly live their lifestyle of choice is to remain immersed with the LGBT community to avoid discrimination. As in any social economic group, those with financial means par better than those who struggle with financial means or lack financial stability.
There are few gay retirement communities that have been built. Those that have been built are in areas that have shown to be more accepting of the LGBT culture. They are expensive and exclude a large population of LGBTs.
The elders may leave their homes where they have felt safe and accepted to be immersed in a culture that is not prepared for them, or go back in the closet and portray a “façade of legitimacy” to be accepted. The façade of legitimacy for elderly heterosexuals is that their norms, values, and beliefs are the only acceptable lifestyle, that a LGBT lifestyle is deviant and unacceptable. Therefore, an LGBT would have to give up their lifestyle, go back into the closet, live a false lifestyle, and accept resocialization in order to fit in and avoid discrimination.
Our current society is not prepared to handle a diverse aging population. We do not have the data to address the housing crisis for the LGBT community. As a society, we do not want to collect this data. By accurately collecting this data, we would then have to address the issue that there is a vast population of people who we do not want to acknowledge. We need to start extensive diversity training for all elderly housing communities and health care systems in regards to sexual orientation and gender identity.
My greatest concern is for the LGBT elderly, over age 70, that are now entering long term facilities. They will be facing the greatest discrimination from the primary heterosexual providers and residents of elderly communities as they have had little or no interaction in their lifetime with the LGBT community. Hopefully, our next generation of elderly will have more understanding, acceptance, and compassion for the LGBT community. If I could develop this research paper, I would like to implement policies to collect more and better data to provide more recent studies on LGBTs.