LGBT seniors came of age in a culture hostile to gay people. While the days of considering homosexuality a disease and a crime may be over for good, homophobia still affects the health of older gay people.
The three biggest issues affecting the health of LGBT seniors are isolation, a lack of traditional family structures and economic insecurity, issues that are often intertwined, advocates say.
Past discrimination can have a real affect on the lives of today’s seniors, said Jan Couvillion, former outreach to elders activities manager at New Leaf, a San Francisco healthcare center for LGBT people that closed in 2009 after 35 years of operation.
Overall, LGBT elders are half as likely as their straight peers to have a close relative to rely on for help, and elderly lesbian couples are twice as likely as heterosexual couples to live below the poverty line, according to a report by SAGE, an advocacy group for LGBT seniors, “Improving the Lives of LGBT Older Adults.” These are significant risk factors for poor health outcomes, the report noted.
“Most lesbians, at least the ones I know, spent their lives walking the fence,” said Couvillion, who is 70 years old and a member of the activist group Older Lesbians Organizing for Change.
Peers who came out at work were often discriminated against and lost their jobs, Couvillion said. The jobs they took to replace their positions often were at much lower pay, she added, which had a long lasting effect on their economic security and on their wellbeing. “There is the stress and the loss of dignity,” Couvillion said.
The traditional family structures that people rely on for care in old age are often broken for elderly LGBT people too, creating an isolation Couvillion sees today in her work as a senior peer advocate for the Tenderloin Self-Help Center. She described an 84-year-old lesbian client who lives in an SRO alone and manages her own incontinence by sleeping on a plastic sheet with no blankets. Coming out often meant severing family bonds for this generation of seniors, and lesbians who didn’t have children are often left to fend for themselves, Couvillion said.
Healthcare providers’ lack of knowledge about the needs of LGBT patients, combined with a lack of resources, make these issues all the more difficult to address, said Dan Ashbrook, the director of Lavender Seniors of the East Bay, an organization devoted to improving the lives of LGBT senior citizens. In addition to organizing lunches and visits to cut down on the isolation of LGBT seniors, Lavender Seniors conducts trainings to help nursing home staff offer better care to older gay people.
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