SEATTLE – They came of age at a time before there were basic rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and are the first generation of LGBT people to come out of the closet in any significant number.
LGBT seniors 65 and older number around 3 million across the United States – about 70,000 of them in Washington state.
And as they reach retirement age and enter their golden years, LGBT people say they are confronting unique challenges over health and long-term care and increasingly are forcing agencies and organizations that care for the aged to not just take note but to act.
In fact, the demand for answers around LGBT elder care is significant enough that a recent summit in Seattle reached capacity before organizers could publicize it.
Called “Over the Rainbow,” the daylong event sponsored by Service Employees International Union Local 775NW explored challenges faced by LGBT folks in finding culturally competent long-term care – whether in their homes or in institutions.
Older LGBT people, particularly gay and bisexual men, tend to have fewer or no children to help them as they age and are more likely to live alone and experience feelings of isolation.
Studies show many lack a broad support system, often depending on peers to provide the care they need. They suffer higher levels of depression and mental stress.
And when they enter long-term-care facilities, it’s not unusual for many to face discrimination and re-closet themselves because of a lack of tolerance by caregivers as well as fellow residents.
Seattle resident Bill Dubay, a longtime gay-rights activist, has given more thought to the challenges of aging in the year or so since he lost his partner of four decades.
Dubay, 65, who works for King County, Wash., said his biggest frustrations have been the loneliness and the creeping feeling of isolation – and it takes work to fend them off.
Those like him, without children, he said, know they can’t depend on extended family or friends to care for them in their later years.
“I think it’s important that we are looking at these issues,” Dubay said. “For anybody in the same situation I’m in, who finds himself with no one to depend on, it’s a bit worrying.”
Karen Fredriksen-Goldsen, a professor of social work and director of the Institute for Multigenerational Health at the University of Washington said addressing the needs of the LGBT elderly has become “quite the topic.”
“As baby boomers age, more of them are living a longer part of their lives outside the closet,” she said. And the high levels of discrimination LGBT people face over a lifetime are “strong predictors of problems linked to physical and mental health” as they get older.
In 2011, Fredriksen-Goldsen led federally funded studies on LGBT aging and last year spoke at the first ever White House LGBT Conference on Aging.
“Right now, the kind of public-policy debates that we are seeing - and the momentum - are having a profound impact and making this a more supportive environment for older adults to be visible and vocal,” she said.
“Providers are realizing that we do have LGBT people, and we need to be able to serve them competently.”
In 2010, the federal government funded the creation of the first LGBT national resource center to provide training and educational resources to LGBT people and care providers.
Many organizations are using the services to prepare themselves and their staffs to care for LGBT people in their care.
One company that provides a range of housing options for all seniors, LivingCare LifeStyles, plans to open one of the Seattle region’s first truly LGBT-friendly housing communities next month in Lynnwood, Wash.
“It’s one thing to say you’re providing a safe environment for LGBT residents; it’s another to make sure you create an environment where there’s zero tolerance for discrimination,” said David Haack, vice president of sales and marketing for the company, which also provides LGBT sensitivity training to its staff.
Like the rest of the population, Haack points out, LGBT seniors with high enough incomes can afford in-home health care.
“The sadder part is that a large chunk of people end up going back into the closet when they put themselves into long-term care,” he said. “At that point, it’s about simply staying alive.”