Senior citizens who identify as LGBT face higher rates of disabilities and physical and mental stress than their heterosexual peers, according to a new study from the University of Washington's School of Social Work.
Titled "The Aging and Health Report: Disparities and Resilience among Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Older Adults," the study has made history as one of the first federally funded reports to examine challenges faced by LGBT seniors.
Queer activists are hailing the document, released Nov. 16, as an important step toward acquiring necessary senior services.
"There's such an invisibility factor to this community," said Britta Larson, senior services director at the Center on Halsted. "It's not often talked about. It's not often seen. Even within our own gay community, it's sort of pushed aside… [This report] is long overdue. Without the research that backs what we're seeing on a daily basis here [at the Center], it's difficult for us to procure funding and create programs."
A multi-state research team led by the School of Social Work's Karen Fredriksen-Goldsen surveyed 2,560 LGBT adults aged 50-95 throughout the United States. Across the board, LGBT seniors reported higher levels of loneliness, depression and binge drinking than heterosexuals in the same age group.
Nearly one-half of those interviewed reported a disability, while about one-third said they've experienced depression. Four of every 10 participants have contemplated suicide.
"Many of our older adults do not have biological families that they rely upon, that they're close to. They may not have had children… and 80 percent of the caregiving in this country comes from families," Larson said. "Many of our seniors have support systems comprised of families of choiceof their friends. But if those people are your age, they're aging too."
As social circles and financial resources dwindle, many LGBT seniors face debilitating loneliness and social isolation that can be "linked to poor mental and physical health, cognitive impairment, chronic illness and premature death," Fredriksen-Goldsen said.
More than half the participants surveyed reported chronic loneliness. Researchers suggested that finding and creating open, accepting communities could help stem these feelings. But for LGBT seniors with limited housing options, that's easier said than done.
"It's incredibly common for older adults to go back into the closet once they enter senior housing or senior living," Larson said. "They may not feel welcome as an LGBT-identified older adult. They may not feel comfortable coming out."
Histories of victimization have created lasting fears for many seniors. The study showed that 80 percent of respondents had been victimized in some way during their lifetimes; this included verbal and physical assault, threats of physical violence or being 'outed,' and damaged property. Additionally, 21 percent of participants said they were denied a job or promotion because of perceived sexual orientation.
When it came to medical care, 21 percent of respondents said they had not disclosed their sexual orientation to doctors for fear of receiving inferior care. And 13 percent reported being turned away from healthcare professionals after coming out.
Fredriksen-Goldsen cautioned that hiding one's sexual orientation could lead to severe health problems, including increased risks of breast or prostate cancer, hepatitis and HIV.
"If you do not disclose to your doctor," Larson explains, "that means that you're not going to be getting proper medical service. Your doctor's not going to be asking the right questions and doing the right screenings."
There was some positive healthcare news, however. Of those interviewed, 91 percent of LGBT older adults reported participating in wellness activities such as meditation and photography. And 82 percent said they engage in modern physical activities such as brisk walks.
"LGBT older adults are resilient and living their lives and building their communities," Fredriksen-Goldsen said.
She presented the study's key findings Nov. 9 during a congressional briefing. Fredriksen-Goldsen urged lawmakers to take note of the growing LGBT senior population, which is expected to double to more than 4 million by 2030.
"The higher rates of aging and health disparities among LGBT older adults are a major concern," Fredriksen-Goldsen said. "Prevention and intervention strategies must be developed to address their unique and mounting needs and to effectively respond to the increasing number of older adults in these communities."
Larson said the Center on Halsted, which helped conduct research for the study, is home to one of the nation's largest and most comprehensive LGBT-specific senior programs. SAGE offers free lunches, holiday programming and social and educational events; it is currently working to build the Midwest's first affordable LGBT senior housing center.
It's not enough, Larson said.
"When our seniors come to the Center on Halsted, they are very comfortable being out and being who they are and embracing one another," she said, "but as I got to know them on a deeper level, I realized that many of them are not out to their employer or to their family… Many of them remain closeted in one aspect of their lives or another."
Larson continued: "Having a safe and welcoming place is important, but they shouldn't have to come here to feel that welcoming atmosphere. They should be able to feel that same level of comfort wherever they are."
"The Aging and Health Report: Disparities and Resilience among Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Older Adults" was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute on Aging.