Carol Cummings, RN, BSN, Expert on Aging Well

Contact Carol
03 June 2019

During the early years of my career in senior living, I had the pleasure of knowing a wonderful resident named Dan. Dan was an openly gay man who visited my office regularly just to talk; we became great friends. Though it was not Dan’s direct mission to teach me about the unique needs of older gay men, he did so by sharing the hurdles and discrimination he faced in his life. His perspective opened my eyes to the issues the LGBT population face throughout their lives and into their aging years, a viewpoint I hadn’t considered. However, Dan’s open attitude is an exception. According to Stories from the Field, a report on a national survey of LGBT older adults, only 22 percent of respondents feel they can be open about their sexual identities with health care staff.  

A recent AARP survey, entitled Maintaining Dignity: A Survey of LGBT Adults Age 45 and Older, found even more concerning statistics. According to their research, three out of four adults age 45 and older who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) say they are concerned about having enough support from family and friends as they age. Many are also worried about how they will be treated in long-term care facilities and want specific LGBT services for older adults.

This is a wakeup call to the senior living industry. According to Sage Advocacy and Services for LGBT Seniors, there are approximately three million LGBT adults over the age of 50 and that number is expected to grow to seven million by 2030. June is LGBT Pride Month, an annual month-long observance of LGBT history and progress. Let’s take this month to look at what we can do to make senior living a better home for those residents identifying as LGBT.   

Like the AARP study found, Dan did not have a partner or children and his siblings were all gone, leaving him with little family support. His experience is common. According to the LGBT Older Adults in Long-Term Care facilities study, LGBT elders are 20 percent less likely to access programs for seniors, are twice as likely to live alone and are three to four times less likely to have children.

Unlike my friend Dan who was very open about his sexual identity, as many as 80 percent of older adults go back in the closet when they enter a senior living community, according to a study titled Improving the Lives of LGBT Older Adults. However, transgender seniors face different hurdles in the healthcare space. Given that not all transgender people have surgically transitioned, they don’t have the option to choose whether to be transparent about their gender. They are automatically outed when they disrobe, which poses an issue in senior living where associates may provide personal care.

What this information adds up to is a need for those of us who provide care to seniors to better understand the unique needs of those who identify as LGBT and work hard to make our services inclusive.

At Brookdale, we understand the importance of this issue. As part of our ongoing Optimum Life Continuing Education series, we are offering a program on LGBT Elders: Best Practices for Creating Safety and Inclusion this month. Britta Larson from the Center for Halsted, a Chicago LGBT community center, identifies the challenges facing the aging LGBT community. Danie Muriella, a 66-year-old transgender woman, talks candidly about her experience transitioning at the age of 62.

The webinar will discuss three tips that help LGBT seniors feel more welcome and understood in your community.

  1. Presume your community has LGBT residents. They may be “hiding” for fear of being treated poorly.
  2. If residents choose to share their sexual orientation and gender identity, discuss with them in a safe and confidential manner. Don’t assume identity by asking about a spouse or children. Instead ask, “Who are the important people in your life?”
  3. Create an opening for LGBT residents to talk about family members of choice. Be sure proper documents are in place for the sharing of protected information with those people with whom the senior wants it shared.

Cultural competence is a mandate for all of us who work in health care, which includes the needs of the LGBT population. It’s been years since I met with Dan, but I am thrilled to see the industry is finally addressing his aging concerns.

If you are interested in learning more or registering for LGBT Elders: Best Practices for Creating Safety and Inclusion for professional credit, visit Brookdale’s Optimum Life Continuing Education page.

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