Aging is a reality we all face. Everyone gets older and everyone eventually finds himself or herself in the twilight years.
But for older LGBTs, aging can be more challenging than for their heterosexual counterparts. That’s mostly because resources and those who provide them are not specifically geared toward the LGBT community.
“A lot of older LGBT people find themselves alone and they are afraid to go into assisted living because they think they have to go back into the closet,” says Ken Terrell, manager of Older Adults with Knowledge (OAK) in Central Florida. “I have worked with the older community for several years and I’ve found that all too often, older LGBT people are disowned by their families, their children…all because of who they are. So they find themselves alone and with few resources.”
According to the American Psychological Association, 39 million people in the United States are over the age of 65. Of that group, 2.4 million identify as LGBTQ and the numbers will only grow as the Baby Boomer generation continues to retire.
“Psychological service providers and caregivers for older adults need to be sensitive to the histories and concerns of LGBT people and to be open-minded, affirming and supportive towards older LGBT adults,” says Michael Adams, CEO of Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian Bisexual and Transgender Elders (SAGE). “This ensures accessible and competent quality care for older LGBTs who face unique challenges.”
And those challenges can be far reaching and varied. Older LGBTs deal with health disparities across areas related to physical and mental health, including high blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, HIV/AIDS and more. According to a 2011 national health study, more than half of the respondents have been told by a doctor that they have depression, 39 percent have seriously considered suicide and 53 percent feel isolated from others.
Isolation can often lead to even more difficulties for aging LGBTs, many of who may not have children of their own.
That’s why groups like The Prime Timers exist, according to Central Florida chapter president Ken Barnard. Prime Timers Central Florida has welcomed older gay men to its group since the mid-1990s and it continues to be a resource for older gay men in Central Florida.
“We have retired and semi-retired members,” says Barnard, 72. “Not everyone likes to go to bars and not everyone is just looking for a date. Many guys just want to be social and we provide an outlet through a lot of different activities, like bowling, dinners, lunches. We also meet up for game days and coffee hours. It’s an outlet some men may not otherwise have.”
Currently, the group boasts more than 80 members. Barnard says that number is always changing as friends invite others to join or if someone moves to Orlando from out of the area.
“We welcome everyone,” Barnard explains. “It’s a way for us to stay active and to stay involved as well as connect with others with similar interests.”
Barnard is quick to point out that there are no age restrictions when it comes to the Prime Timers.
But sometimes, older LGBTs find different ways of enjoying their senior years.
Orlando resident Al Pfeiffer has encountered his fair share of challenges during his 82 years on the planet. One of his children doesn’t speak to him any longer and he says that two of his five grandchildren don’t even know that he’s alive.
But he doesn’t let the challenges keep him down. In fact, he says he’s thriving in his 80s.
“Growing up in the 1970s and ‘80s as a gay person, you always felt persecuted,” Pfeiffer says. “You were the odd-ball person. Now I don’t think the gay community feels that way. That’s helpful. You can enjoy life.”
A lot has changed during Pfeiffer’s eight decades. He saw the AIDS epidemic first-hand, got arrested for soliciting a police officer in a bar, celebrated the legalization of marriage equality and married his longtime partner, Chris Lesisco, who happens to be 24 years his junior.
“Most of the people I spend time with are in their 40s and 50s,” Pfeiffer says. “I don’t really like categories. I prefer being a part of groups that are for everyone.”
Pfeiffer knows he’s seen a lot of cultural changes during his lifetime. But suprisingly, he’s not terribly interested in discussing what he’s seen.
“It’s never really occurred to me to offer a historical perspective,” Pfeiffer says. “I think the only thing I can express to people is how lucky you are at your age to have the freedom of being who you are. But I don’t think that’s something I preach. I’ll address it if it comes up in conversation. Maybe it’s selfish on my part, but I want to participate in the same freedoms that people who are younger have and that I didn’t have when I first came out.”
When Pfeiffer did come out, a psychologist didn’t offer much help other than suggesting he “get a boys magazine and jerk off in the bathroom,” Pfeiffer recalls.
“I guess if I was a professor and my subject matter was gay, there would be a lot more for me to add to a discussion. But I look back and just see that it’s funny or strange, the things that I had to go through to get here.”
What Pfeiffer does offer from his past is limited. He was married to a woman when he came out and is the father of two. He’s proud of his accomplishments and says he doesn’t focus on the negative since we all “only get to go around one time.”
“If you don’t wallow in the tragedies that you might have gone through, you’re a better and happier person than people who say, ‘Oh my God, it was so bad,’” Pfeiffer says. “It was a lot of fun going through life when I first came out. When I would go out it was about sitting in the back of the bar away from the windows so people couldn’t see you. That sounds scary but it was exciting. I want to have a positive feeling about life and I continue to live that way. That’s my philosophy.
According to Adams, Pfeiffer’s outlook isn’t all that uncommon among older LGBTQ Americans.
“It turns out that those life experiences that come with age — no matter how painful and difficult — make many of us more resilient and more optimistic, not less,” Adams shares. “In fact, recent research indicates that the older you are, the more upbeat and happy you are likely to be, at least if you’re LGBT.”
While Pfeiffer seems to have put negative experiences behind him and remains focused on the present and future, not every older LGBT person is able to do that. Too many find themselves struggling, choosing between paying rent or purchasing medicines.
“There are programs out there for older Americans, but there aren’t enough programs focused on the specific needs of the aging LGBT populations,” Terrell says. “Training is essential for older LGBT people to feel safe and comfortable with agencies. They shouldn’t have to continuously worry about stigma and discrimination, but they do.”
And while there are a handful of communities across the country for LGBT elders, there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure LGBT seniors are treated with dignity and respect, especially those who may not have a partner or a support system.
“We need more services and housing options,” says Terrell. The few retirement communities for LGBTs are out West or in areas away from cities. That doesn’t make sense because LGBTs are always very prominent in urban areas.
“We also need to ensure that our elders are comfortable receiving healthcare. Too many have seen prejudices in healthcare before and are afraid to be honest with their healthcare providers. That does more harm than good.”
A lifetime of discrimination, according to Adams, can make older LGBT people less trusting at a time in their life when they need the most assistance.
“Just like other older Americans, LGBT elders rely on community services funded by the federal Older Americans Act,” Adams says. “They rely on federal support for senior housing. They rely on the progress the federal government has encouraged through training of aging service providers and the establishment of anti-discrimination protections.
“These programs and protections are even more essential for elders who are LGBT, people of color and members of other diverse elder communities – all of whom are especially vulnerable due to the accumulated effects of lifetimes of discrimination and marginalization.”
And it’s not just large agencies that can help, according to Terrell. He encourages everyone to get involved, even if it just means spending an hour or two a week with an older person in the community. That simple interaction, he says, can make a world of difference.
“We should all take the time to get to know an older person,” Terrell says. “Don’t judge a book by its cover. The older generation is our history and you can learn a lot by spending some time with an elder. You may learn that they knew Martin Luther King Jr., or that they were at the Stonewall Riots in New York. Our older generations have stories to share and we shouldn’t be afraid to listen to them and to offer them some company.”
SAGE Tampa Bay
Metro Community Center
3251 3rd Ave. N., St. Petersburg, FL 33713
The OWL (Older, Wiser, Learning) Program
The LGBT+ Center Orlando
946 N Mills Ave., Orlando, FL 32803
By: Jeremy Williams
As people enter into their golden years, issues such as elder abuse, age discrimination and economic security become real concerns to many at a time when they should be enjoying life.
These concerns can be even more daunting if you are LGBTQ, as many elders in the community face homophobic and transphobic caregivers, healthcare providers and heterosexual elders. Below are just a few highlights of the issues and concerns facing aging LGBTQ people.
Fear of Discrimination
Many aging LGBTQ people do not disclose their identities to their physicians, nurses or caregivers. Twenty-two percent of LGBTQ older adults in long-term care facilities felt they could not be open about their LGBTQ identity with facility staff, 89 percent predicted that staff would discriminate based on their sexual orientations and/or gender identities and 43 percent reported instances of mistreatment. LGBTQ elders also face a greater risk of social isolation and neglect as they’re twice as likely to live alone or be single and 3-4 times less likely to have children.
Living in Poverty
Thanks to a lifetime of workplace discrimination and a lack of protections, LGBTQ elders are faced with a disproportionately higher rate of poverty. Twenty-four percent of lesbians and 15 percent of gay and bisexual men are considered poor, compared to 19 percent and 13 percent of heterosexual women and men, respectively. One study even found that 9.1 percent of elder lesbian couples and 4.9 percent of elder gay couples suffered in extreme poverty.
LGBTQ elders face higher percentages of physical health conditions such as obesity, high blood pressure, cholesterol, arthritis, cataracts, diabetes and more. Mental health concerns are higher among LGBTQ elders as well with more than half suffering with depression; 39 percent reporting they have seriously thought of suicide; and 53 percent feeling isolated from others. HIV is another area of great concern among LGBTQ elders. Fifty percent of the people living with HIV in the U.S. are over the age of 50. This group includes longtime survivors, but also new diagnosed individuals with 15 percent of new HIV cases coming from people age 50 and older. Many healthcare providers do not test LGBTQ elders for HIV as they assume they are no longer sexually active but 53 percent of adults age 65-74 and 26 percent of adults age 75-85 report being active with one or more partners.
Few aging providers offer cultural competence training or outreach specific to transgender communities. Many older transgender adults are not getting the support they need, and many are reluctant to seek services at all if they can even find a healthcare provider who will see them or insurance policy that will cover them. Due to the widespread discrimination against transgender individuals they are more likely to experience higher rates of disability, general poor health, depression, anxiety, loneliness and suicidal ideation.
—Statistics provided by SAGEUSA.org