My grandfather and I have a close relationship. I am constantly grateful for his presence in my life. He has supported me emotionally and financially throughout my entire life. The only thing he asks of me—besides calling home often—is that I work hard so that when I have to put him in “a home,” we can afford a nice one. He is joking, but it always reminds me of the increasing needs his generation of baby boomers face as they age. 1 in 7 Americans are considered an older adult, a unique population with changing needs and increasing concerns. Of these elders, there are an estimated 3 million LGBTQ individuals who are 50 and older who have a host of unique health and lifestyle needs as they age. For LGBTQ+ elders, aging with grace becomes a complicated process, and resources are scarce nationwide. This is leading many people who have lived full lives openly embracing their sexual orientation and gender identity back into the closet.
As people age, most begin to depend on their families in new and increasing ways to combat health issues and the effects of social isolation. Social isolation becomes even more of a concern for aging LGBTQ individuals. LGBTQ older adults are twice as likely to be single and live alone. Additionally, they are 3-4 times more likely not to have children, and many are estranged from their families of origin. 80 percent of care for elders is provided by family in this country. In light of this fact, it’s no surprise that care facilities become an important resource as LGBTQ people age. The sad fact remains, however, that these facilities are often ill-equipped to manage the LGBTQ community’s unique needs.
Discrimination in housing and care facilities is a prominent concern. The case of Marsha Wetzel illustrates many of these issues vividly. Marsha, a 70 year old lesbian based in Illinois, recently filed a lawsuit against her senior housing facility for failure to keep her safe from anti-gay harassment and discrimination. Wetzel says that after coming out to another resident, she received an onslaught of slurs, bullying, and physical harassment from other residents. Instead of addressing her expressed concerns, Wetzel states they retaliated and forced her out of their low-income housing facility. Her dismissed case is now in the appeals process.
In a recent national study of LGBTQ older adults in care, only 22% of respondents felt they could be open about their identities to facility staff. 89% feared discrimination from facility staff, while 43% reported incidents of verbal and/or physical harassment. Only 20 states have nondiscrimination protections in place for LGBTQ individuals in regards to housing, leaving 50 percent of the LGBTQ population unprotected.
The need for quality elder care is great. The need to have that care be culturally competent and sensitive is even greater. LGBTQ affirming spaces help to stave off the negative effects of isolation and provide a space free from discrimination. Currently, only 8 percent of all elder care facilities offer services to the older LGBTQ community and only 12 percent include programs that intentionally try to include LGBTQ elders. These much needed services are sparse and underfunded.
In Cleveland, we are grateful to recommend two affirming facilities: A Place for Us and Rainbow Steps. But these two facilities are not able to administer to the needs of this entire growing population.
The Center is proud to provide community exercises and programming three days a week through our SAGE program. We have a robust group of LGBTQ elders who have forged meaningful friendships and who have built a network of supports. Our SAGE Coordinator, Mary Beth Bartholomew, also leads trainings that raise awareness of the unique issues and challenges faced by LGBTQ older adults, including social isolation and housing discrimination. The Center is dedicated to serving the needs of our elders, and we invite the rest of our community and our allies to join.
“The elderly deserve to be treated with respect and to feel safe no matter who they are or who they loved and I’m going to fight for us.”