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Caring for Aging LBGTQ Adults

As healthcare providers know, people’s health needs change as they grow older, but for members of the LGBTQ community, those shifting needs may differ from the needs of the aging general population.

As healthcare providers know, people’s health needs change as they grow older, but for members of the LGBTQ community, those shifting needs may differ from the needs of the general aging population. Older adults make up a small slice of the LGBTQ community, but they often have more significant needs while experiencing more discrimination and neglect than their younger counterparts. Therefore, it’s essential to know what LGBTQ resources exist for older people and how to help them find support.

An estimated 3 million LGBTQ people in the United States are age 55 or older, including 1.5 million aged 65 and older. Fortunately, organizations such as Advocacy and Services for LGBTQ Elders (SAGE) provide support specifically for older LGBTQ people. Becoming familiar with this resource and others as a healthcare provider means you can help older patients know their healthcare rights and find the healthcare they need and deserve.

The first step to getting that support is ensuring a person’s healthcare team knows their gender identity and sexual orientation so their care can be tailored to that patient’s specific needs. Patients are more likely to volunteer that information in an environment that shows they are welcome, whether it’s from posters on the walls, rainbows on the doors or at the nurse’s station, or healthcare providers wearing name tags that list their pronouns. Even if a patient doesn’t volunteer this information, it should be included as part of the patient history.

Long-Term Effects of Discrimination

One reason this history is significant for LGBTQ seniors is the way times have changed over the years. The further back in time you go from today, the worse social acceptance of the LGBTQ community has been. That means older LGBTQ people have likely experienced more discrimination, prejudice, and stigma than their younger counterparts. A wealth of research has established that the trauma and stress from a lifetime of stigma and discrimination can take its toll on LGBTQ seniors’ health, increasing their risk for a range of adverse experiences, such as:

  • Social isolation.
  • Depression and anxiety.
  • Poverty.
  • Chronic illnesses.
  • Poor nutrition.
  • Premature death.

Further, LGBTQ adults may not have had access to appropriate and respectful healthcare for much of their lives. That means aspects of their health may have been neglected, or they have conditions that previous healthcare providers have missed. This is especially true for those patients who may have stopped seeking healthcare altogether after having multiple bad experiences with how they were treated.

Aside from seeking healthcare, research from the National LGBQTQI+ Health Education Center suggests that older LGBTQ adults are less likely to take advantage of essential and community services than straight older adults, even as they face a greater risk of food and housing insecurity. That makes it even more critical for older LGBTQ adults to have supportive communities and resources that address their needs.

The Risks of Isolation

Older LGBTQ adults are more likely to live alone than others their age, according to the National LGBTQI+ Health Education Center. They are also half as likely to have a partner or close relatives they can call for help, and they are four times less likely than straight people their age to have children who can help them. All of these factors make isolation a greater risk for older LGBTQ adults, and lacking a support network can make that isolation even worse. Over time, isolation not only increases the risk of depression, loneliness, and anxiety, but it also has a negative effect on people’s physical health, particularly their cardiovascular health.

LGBTQ adults may also have more difficulty finding respectful and inclusive long-term care. The state of elder care is already very poor throughout most of the US, but LGBTQ seniors have additional barriers to finding high-quality care. For example, some long-term care centers don’t allow same-sex partners to room together or don’t respect a person’s gender identity. State laws and center policies complicate matters further if a person’s “chosen family” are barred from participating in medical decisions. For LGBTQ persons, chosen family is vital because their blood-related family, including adult children, may be estranged from them.

LGBTQ Resources for Older People

The following resources can help you learn about LGBTQ adults’ healthcare rights, the type of healthcare they might need (above and beyond what straight adults their age need), and ways they can find support and services not only for their physical and mental health but also their overall wellbeing:

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