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LGBT Older Adults: At Risk, But Resilient

We must ensure that they have opportunities to emerge from the margins

Editor’s note: This article is part of Next Avenue’s 2015 Influencers in Aging project honoring 50 people changing how we age and think about aging. 

Aging and health issues facing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender older adults have been largely ignored by services, policies and research. Yet more than 2.4 million of U.S. adults age 50 and older self-identify as LGBT, which will more than double by 2030. LGBT older adults share many of the same aging concerns as those in the general population, but they also experience unique aging and health challenges and strengths as they encounter barriers and inequalities.

The National Health, Aging, and Sexuality Study: Aging with Pride, the first national longitudinal project designed to better understand the health and well-being of LGBT adults aged 50 older, finds that this population faces very high levels of lifetime victimization and discrimination. Encountering such serious adversity increases their risk of significant social and health disparities and reflects the historical and social context of their lives. LGBT older adult study participants face higher rates of disability, mental distress and social isolation, and they often fear accessing services.

LGBT older adults are also resilient, however. Most of the study participants feel good about belonging to the LGBT communities and are satisfied with their lives. They also engage in wellness activities and moderate physical exercise. Almost one in four regularly attend spiritual or religious activities.

A Smaller Circle

LGBT older adults have built their communities and developed unique systems of support. However, compared to heterosexuals of similar age, LGBT older adults are less likely to be partnered or married, and have fewer children and other cross-generational ties to help them. They rely heavily on peers for support; yet many of their peers face their own aging and health challenges.

An alarming 21 percent of those surveyed had not told their doctors about their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Over half of LGBT older adult participants live alone and are at high risk of social isolation and financial insecurity. Such risk factors create greater risk for premature mortality. More than half of LGBT elders feel that they lack companionship, feel isolated from others or feel left out.

Furthermore, about one in three have difficulty identifying someone in their lives to provide assistance if needed. Senior housing, transportation, legal services, support groups and social events were the most commonly cited services needed in the LGBT community, according to the study.

Unique Challenges

An alarming 21 percent of those surveyed had not told their doctors about their sexual orientation or gender identity. Furthermore, 15 percent feared accessing health care services outside the LGBT community. Thirteen percent were denied health care or received inferior health care.

As one gay boomer shared with us, “The LGBT community has stepped up in the past to address coming out, AIDS and civil rights. The next wave has to be aging.”

For more information visit www.CaringAndAging.org.

Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute on Aging of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R01AG026526 (Fredriksen-Goldsen, PI). The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

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