Why Aging Can Be Tougher On Gays

The issues facing LBGT elders are unique and need to be addressed.
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The once-a-decade temperature check on aging in America -- the White House Conference on Aging -- starts Monday and the spotlight is bound to shine on some of the special concerns facing the nation's elderly LGBT community. Here are six of them:

1. What happens if you don't have kids?

Increasingly, the elderly are turning to their adult children for their care. So, what happens if you don't have adult children to turn to? It's a huge worry.

Medicare doesn't pay for long-term nursing home care -- even though 70 percent of people over age 65 are expected to need it. Nor, as a nation, have we embraced the idea of buying private long-term care insurance; just 3 percent of us have it, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. So who is going to provide that care if you can't afford to buy it (and few can when the average nursing home costs about $91,000 a year)?

As for having adult children: LGBT elders are 4 times less likely to be parents than older people in the country at large.

2. Few have enough money for retirement, but LGBT seniors have even less.

The lagging behind in earnings has resulted in a lagging behind in retirement savings as well, notes Michael Adams, executive director of SAGE (Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Elders).

Overall, 42 percent of all LGBT elders told SAGE that said "financial problems" are a big concern in their lives. One-third felt they were "poorly prepared" for retirement, and 47 percent said they had less than $10,000 in savings and other assets.

3. LGBT elders are more likely to be alone.

SAGE, which surveyed LGBT elders in preparation for the White House conference, heard from a lot of people about their diminished support networks. Support networks are smaller for LGBT people because their families of origin don't accept them, they don't have children, and in some cases because their social circles were decimated during the height of the AIDS crisis. One respondent noted that having lost so many friends to AIDS, he found himself facing aging "without cohorts."

As SAGE's Adams told The Huffington Post, the absence of a traditional family structure is where the trouble starts. As people reach advanced age, they tend to be less connected to their non-family and rely more on their family. If there is no family there, they turn to services -- which leads to another LGBT problem.

4. Discrimination is still alive and well.

Without adult children or other family members to care for them, LGBT elders often must turn to community and government services for their care. There is plenty of opinion research that shows that the older people are, the more likely they are to harbor bias against gays -- peer-to-peer discrimination. LGBT feel they are not often welcomed by people their age in senior centers. These centers aren't just social gathering places; many elders rely on them for help filing out important paperwork and dealing with problems getting them services. Adams noted that often the professional staff at these service centers often doesn't know how to handle these situations.

"And what happens if they encounter a caregiver with strong anti-gay religious biases?" Adams asked. "It's frightening."

5. Housing is a hot button.

As older LGBT people enter assisted living situations, nursing homes, independent elderly housing or retirement communities, "they are often presumed heterosexual and may feel the need to go back into the closet," wrote one of the researchers in a test conducted by the Equal Rights Center last year that found 48 percent of the same-sex couples they sent into the field to find housing were discriminated against. The researcher noted that "Even if they have lived openly in the past, [same-sex couples] they may suddenly find themselves in situations where disclosing their sexual orientation or gender variance makes them vulnerable to discrimination or even abuse."

When it comes to moving into senior housing, LGBT elders said they worried about having to choose between being ostracized for who they are or going back in the closet to get along with their new neighbors. One trans respondent pondered whether he would "be de-transitioning?" Another man, with no family and contemplating a nursing home, pondered the wisdom of telling his prospective roommate that he was gay.

6. LGBT elders' health concerns go beyond those of the general population's.

There are substantial numbers of older gay men living with HIV. People aged 55 and older accounted for more than one-quarter (26 percent, 313,200) of the estimated 1.2 million people living with HIV infection in the United States in 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

And then there is mental health. Many LGBT older people suffer from feelings of loneliness, isolation, depression and have thoughts of suicide, said SAGE's Adams.

The research shows that high percentages of LGBT older adults -- especially transgender people and people of color -- are dealing with mental health issues that dramatically affect their quality of lives as they age. Additionally, because many LGBT elders came of age during a time when homosexuality was considered a mental illness, the relationship between LGBT elders and the mental health field "is complicated," SAGE notes. Many LGBT elders delay seeking the mental health care they need for fear of encountering discrimination and bias in those settings.

While the White House Council on Aging may not produce solutions to the problems facing the older LGBT community, the discussion of these issues is at least a start.

Below is a video produced from SAGE's survey.

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