In the United States today, about 1.5 million people over 65 identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. That number is expected to double by 2030. While all communities can expect to face some challenges as they age, LGBTQ seniors often encounter unique hurdles. From lingering social and cultural prejudices to laws which either ignore or exclude same-sex partnerships, aging brings unique challenges to the senior LGBTQ community.
Family Isolation and Families of Choice
While heterosexual seniors tend to rely on biological family to take care of them as they age, some LGBTQ elders don’t have that option. Some struggle with family isolation – maybe they came out as older adults, out of straight marriages and after having children. This may result in a strained family situation, leading to isolation from their family of origin. According to SAGE (Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders), LGBTQ seniors are about half as likely to have close relatives they can call for help. LGBTQ seniors are more likely to rely on their “family of choice,” a support system of close friends treated or thought of as family. However, many social services and government programs don’t recognize families of choice as legitimate care providers.
Homosexual seniors also rely less on spouses for care than their heterosexual counterparts. Although most states recognize gay marriages, most LGBTQ seniors over the age of 60 are single, and many live alone. Social isolation can lead to depression and cognitive decline, and can result in a situation where it’s hard to call on someone for help.
Legal and Financial Issues
Many laws and government safety net programs for older Americans often don’t provide equal protection for LGBTQ seniors, often because they don’t acknowledge their partners or families of choice. These laws are often founded on the presumption of heterosexual marriage. From Social Security and Medicaid to retirement plans and pensions, same-sex partners are often ignored or refused rights and benefits.
While not all estates are affected by estate and inheritance taxes, same-sex couples are unequally burdened by inheritance taxes. While a surviving heterosexual spouse can inherit the couple’s assets without paying taxes, a same-sex partner may pay taxes up to 45% on inheritance over the federal exemption limit. It is estimated that same-sex couples affected by estate taxes lose about $1.1 million per couple because of these laws.
LGBTQ seniors may face issues in long-term care facilities or in other medical care. For example, some seniors have reported being forced to share a room with a phobic roommate or being separated from their partner. Some have been evicted or refused admittance because of issues of sexual orientation or gender identity. While staff may be trained to treat all residents equally, volunteers and fellow residents may not, and this is where many issues in long-term care facilities happen, according to Linda Ellis, executive director of the Health Initiative, an organization dedicated to assuring equality in health care.
Certain conditions – often underserved by the government and service providers – are more prevalent in the LGBTQ community. They have higher rates of HIV/AIDS and other chronic medical conditions. According to the AARP, LGBTQ seniors are at higher risk for mental health issues/disabilities than the general population, and “have higher rates of smoking and excessive alcohol consumption.”
If you need legal or medical advice, or simply aging support, several national organizations focus on improving the lives of LGBTQ seniors. One major group is Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders, or SAGE (www.sageusa.org), which also has local branches in many areas. Old Lesbians Organizing for Change (www.oloc.org) is a national network of lesbians over 60, and Primetimers Worldwide (www.primetimersww.org) is a national social organization for older gay and bisexual men.