Rita Smith regularly prunes fruit trees in Seattle Orchards. It helps her stay fit and contribute to the community after retiring from her position as community education director for recycling and waste prevention. Smith says her health “could be better” if she exercised more regularly, but she feels altogether active and capable.
It might sound like a commonplace story, but as a member of the LGBT community now in her 70s, Smith is fortunate. Countless people just like her are struggling to find ways to cope with the health challenges old age can bring, but many are doing so without the support network that their straight counterparts can rely on.
A Sign of the Times
Today, we generally accept that around 4 percent of the population identifies as LGBT. When Smith came out in the 1970s, however, things were different.
Although most Americans knew there were LGBT people in society, many heterosexual people still weren’t sure how to react to the concept. The result is that the LGBT community had to become a self-sustaining support network. For people who had been shunned or mistreated by their families and friends, social circles shrunk naturally.
Today, we generally see more progressive views toward the LGBT community in younger people, but as the baby boomer generation ages, many older LGBT people are finding they lack the support network that can be so critical in later years.
Aging Affects Everyone
Many of the same ailments that affect the general population also have a significant impact on the LGBT community. But isolation and lack of resources can put LGBT elders at unusually high risk.
LGBT people have a 19 percent higher risk of at least one type of cancer, and gay and bisexual men are at increased risk of human papillomavirus. Cardiovascular disease from dietary and stress-related issues is also high, as it is in all members of the elderly population. Some evidence suggests that the hormone treatments transgendered people use when they transition may even increase the risk of heart disease.
In the United States, most elderly people receive care from their family members. But for many LGBT people now reaching their golden years, family bonds aren’t necessarily reliable.
In some cases, when finances are in place, it may be feasible for someone to live and receive care at an elder care facility. While this is a viable option, it can bring with it a risk of elder abuse, and minority groups are always at an increased risk of this due to discrimination. If you have a friend or loved one who is planning a move to such a facility, make sure you pay a visit and observe the way they treat their residents.
Elder abuse is a serious, widespread issue that goes highly underreported in the mainstream media. An estimated one in 10 Americans over the age of 60 has suffered some form of abuse. Abuse doesn’t have to be physical — it can be emotional, or come in the form of neglect. Stigmas against LGBT people may put them at a greater risk of this type of abuse.
A Better Future
Views about the LGBT community are changing, and it is becoming easier for LGBT people to lead healthy, happy lives. Some of the questions this community faces even expose more substantial inconsistencies about elder care in the U.S. as a whole. Discrimination has no appropriate place anywhere in society, but our elders are in need of even more protection than their more able-bodied counterparts.
Raising awareness and asking questions is the first step. By understanding where we are falling short, we can begin a conversation about how to make things better.
What Are the Primary Issues Affecting the Elderly LGBT Population?