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Aging in the LGBT community: Growing older in a hostile environment

Editor’s note: SDGLN is putting human faces to key issues of our times. Today, we take a look at the plight of LGBT seniors, who face new forms of discrimination and often are forced back into the closet.

Dignity is a word people like to use when talking about the elderly.

People “age with dignity” and “die with dignity.”

What happens, though, when a member of the LGBT community ages? Is there any dignity in being an elderly LGBT American?

Imagine trying to feel dignified when the state makes your decisions for you. Imagine clinging to your dignity when the government takes away your property, your partner and your life.

That is what happened to Clay Greene and Harold Scull of Sonoma County in California.

After spending 20 years together, an overzealous government tore Harold and Clay apart. Harold fell down the stairs, and Clay was left to deal with his ailing partner, as well as a system that would only recognize him as a roommate.

Clay had confidence he would be able to care for Harold, even after the fall. After all, the two men had drafted wills, powers of attorney and health-care directives. They had done everything they were supposed to do.

Sonoma County officials and health-care staff disregarded these documents, just as they disregarded Clay’s place in Harold’s life. They refused to allow Clay to see his partner, and they auctioned off the couple’s belongings. Then, they terminated the lease and shipped Clay off to a nursing home. With the two men in different nursing homes, Clay was not able to spend any more time with his partner.

Harold died alone, in a way that was anything but dignified.

Inside the issue

San Diego Gay & Lesbian News spoke with Laurie Young, the aging specialist at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. According to Young, older members of the LGBT community are invisible to both heterosexual and homosexual people. Because they are forced to live in the shadows, their issues are rarely addressed.

Invisibility is not the only issue they face. Legal and social discrimination are serious issues for aging LGBT Americans, Young says.
This discrimination plays out in several ways. First, there is discrimination inside of nursing homes. Nursing home staffs are rarely trained in cultural competence, and few nursing homes have guidelines for protecting LGBT residents.

This environment causes LGBT seniors to fear for their lives, Young says. These men and women know how ugly discrimination can be, as they lived in the world before Stonewall kicked off the LGBT rights movement. They remember the time when people were thrown in jail due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. They also recall a time when members of the LGBT community were forced into psychiatric hospitals, where they received cruel and invasive treatments. Having lived during that time, they are fearful of the discrimination they face in nursing homes. To cope, many go back in the closet, which makes them feel even more isolated.

In addition, the LGBT community faces discrimination from home health workers. Just like the employees in nursing homes, home health workers are rarely trained in dealing with the LGBT community. Not only are they ignorant of LGBT issues, but many discriminate against gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people. This discrimination can create a hostile environment.

Many members of the LGBT community try to hide their sexuality from home health workers. They take down pictures of their partners, remove artwork and do other things to make their homes look more “heterosexual.” Then, they wait for the workers to arrive, and hope they are able to conceal the truth. For many, it would be devastating if the worker found out they were gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. They could be physically or verbally abused, and fail to get the care they need.

Lastly, many members of the LGBT community face discrimination when they attempt to visit their ailing partners or play a role in their care. However, steps are being taken to put a stop to this type of discrimination.

Recently, President Barack Obama ordered the Department of Health and Human Services to make it possible for LGBT people to visit their partners in the hospital. Obama also told the department to create a rule that will force hospitals to honor advanced care directives. If this policy had been in place when Harold Greene was in the hospital, his partner would have been able to play an active role in his care.

Financial issues

Aging LGBT people also face financial issues. A report by the Movement Advancement Project (MAP) titled “Improving The Lives Of LGBT Older Adults” states that LGBT seniors are poorer than heterosexual seniors are.

LGBT seniors have money problems for a variety of reasons. First, many members of the LGBT community lose money due to the lack of Medicaid protections. Medicaid has spousal impoverishment protections for married couples. These protections allow the healthy spouse to maintain a high enough income to live independently, while the other spouse receives Medicaid to pay for long-term care. Since the LGBT community cannot receive this protection, they often run out of money while caring for ailing partners.

In addition, surviving members of same-sex couples are unable to receive survivor’s benefits from social security. Married couples receive these benefits and use them to supplement their incomes.

Estate taxes also financially cripple the LGBT community. When a person in a same-sex relationship dies, the surviving partner has to pay estate taxes on the property they inherit. This can be incredibly expensive, and causes many people to lose their savings.

Possible legislation

Advocates look toward legislation that can help with the social, legal and financial issues many LGBT seniors face.

Young said she has her sights set on the Older Americans Act, which is up for reauthorization in 2011. This act currently excludes the LGBT community, but Young is hopeful the reauthorized act will include protections for LGBT seniors.

While the act will be too late to help Clay, Harold and countless other LGBT seniors, Young believes it could provide valuable protections for people who are currently aging or receiving long-term care.

While the Older Americans Act is the focus of many LGBT groups, there are people working behind the scenes to create other legislation.
John Johnson, the federal director of governmental affairs at Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Elders (SAGE), spoke with the San Diego Gay & Lesbian News about SAGE’s role in helping create LGBT-friendly legislation.

Under Johnson’s leadership, SAGE is working with the federal government to create LGBT-friendly aging legislation, as well as to amend current legislation so it includes the LGBT community. Johnson is focused on issues relating to Medicare and Medicaid, long-term care facilities, health insurance and domestic partner benefits.

Johnson and Young are both positive about what the future holds for aging LGBT Americans. They hope legislation and education will work together so this group will be protected in hospitals, in long-term care facilities and at home.

How to find help

The Center in Hillcrest has several programs for LGBT community members 50 and older.

The "50 and Better Together" and Senior Services strive to create a safe space where those 50 years and "better" will have access to important resources and referrals regarding health care, social services and community activities.

The Olin/Grinchuk Senior Space is available to community groups and individuals 50 and older and provides a free, dedicated space for our senior members to meet, socialize and plan activities and events.

For more information, contact the Senior Services coordinator at (619) 692-2077, ext. 212, or seniors@thecentersd.org.

ElderHelp of San Diego provides case management and referrals to health and social services for LGBT seniors; assists with volunteer recruitment and training; provides space for free legal counseling; and develops and conducts health provider educational trainings and seminars. For more information contact Renee Nashtut at 619-284-9281, ext. 15, or rnashtut@elderhelpofsandiego.org. ElderHelp can also help you find help with your tax preparation.

Family Health Centers of San Diego implements an HIV/AIDS social marketing campaign targeted towards LGBT seniors to increase awareness of STD risk factors and safer sex practices, and to encourage STD testing. For more information, contact Bob Lewis at (619) 515-2586 or robertl@fhcsd.org

Elder Law and Advocacy provides free legal assistance and counseling for LGBT seniors at several locations. For more information, contact Bob Martin at (858) 565-1392 or bmartin@seniorlaw-sd.org.