Marginalizing LGBTQ Seniors Hits Close to Home For CELJ CEO

 

My daughter is gay. When she came out to us, her father and I felt that, although she was bound to face discrimination in her lifetime, we knew she was supported by her family, educated on her rights and perfectly able to take care of herself.  We felt that living in New York, her sexuality would barely impact her prospects for a happy life and a prosperous career. We needed to believe this, to think that our daughter was safe in the world, in order to sleep at night.

 

Then, in March, 2017, the Trump administration removed LGBTQ questions from its annual survey that determines services for seniors.  I was immediately made aware of this action due to my role as the CEO at the Center for Elder Law & Justice.  Although the administration eventually acquiesced, after receiving more than 14,000 comments, the attempt to erase the lives of millions of Americans frightened me on both a professional and personal level.

 

To comprehend the importance of this issue you need to understand that the Department of Health and Human Services Administration on Community Living (ACL) uses the National Survey of Older Americans Act Participants to decide how to allocate federal funding to groups that work with older adults.  In 2014, questions about sexual orientation and gender identity were first added to the survey, which helped researchers determine the U.S. is home to about 3 million LGBTQ people over the age of 55.

 

Why does this matter?  The federal government uses the results of the survey to allocate around two billion dollars for senior services across the nation.  Programming specifically designed for LGBTQ seniors increased once the federal government saw the numbers (and therefore the need) for specialized services.  Moreover, LGBTQ seniors need a disproportionate amount of services due to the history of bigotry, stigma, discrimination and violence they experienced, and continue to experience, to this day.

Due to a lifetime of employment discrimination, many LGBTQ older adults do not have the work history they need to receive adequate social security benefits.  They cannot rely upon the social safety net that gives non-LGBTQ seniors a sense of comfort as they age. According to a report by Justice in Aging, in 2012, 21% of LGBTQ adults living alone reported incomes of less than $12,000 per year, compared to 17% of non-LGBTQ adults.

In addition, according to SAGE (the country’s largest and oldest organization dedicated to improving the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender older adults), LGBTQ older adults experience significant health disparities, including high blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, HIV/AIDS, as well as serious mental health issues. A 2011 national health study found that more than half of the respondents have been told by a doctor that they have depression; 39 percent have seriously thought of suicide; and 53 percent feel isolated from others.

 

LGBTQ older people are twice as likely to live alone, twice as likely to be single, and 3-4 times less likely to have children.  Without informal caregivers, the chances of needing institutional care increases.  However, due to stigma, many of our LGBTQ clients report going “back into the closet” when they move into a nursing home, or assisted living facility. A recent national survey of LGBT older adults in long-term care facilities found that only 22% of respondents felt they could be open about their LGBT identities with facility staff, 89% predicted that staff would discriminate based on their sexual orientations and/or gender identities, and 43% reported instances of mistreatment.

 

So after a lifetime of discrimination, which resulted in LGBTQ seniors who are poorer, sicker and more isolated than the non-LGBTQ older population, the federal government was poised to decrease those very services that they require in greater numbers due to past discriminatory practices.

 

This action by the federal government, and the resulting backlash, certainly opened my eyes.  I was naïve in thinking that my daughter was protected from the discrimination that those who came before her faced.  Although older members of the LGBTQ community walked a harder road, her path will not be easy and I have made my peace with that. I know that she is a tenacious advocate and will continue to fight for her rights and the rights of her community.  She will remain vigilant– as will I, as her mother.

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