It’s often said that LGBT people are an invisible minority. While it’s true that some LGBT people intentionally “out” themselves, the vast majority of us are indistinguishable from our family members, neighbors or friends. Unless we verbally disclose our sexual orientation or gender identity, others would never know this facet of our identity.
Within this invisible culture is yet another, more invisible group. These are LGBT seniors – those over the age of 60 years, who are either settled into long careers, relationships and retirement settings or living alone and in social isolation and no longer “seen” by younger LGBT folks.
Many of us came of age long before the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969. Many of us lived the majority of our lives “in the closet,” spent years in psychoanalysis trying to “be normal,” or found a special partner and an intimate social group but rarely ventured beyond that safe zone. We started the LGBT organizations that younger people now take for granted. We survived our brothers who died of AIDS, sisters who died of breast, cervical or ovarian cancers, or those who died from alcoholism and drug overdoses trying to numb the pain of their loneliness. We are survivors and the efforts we made to build the movement of equality and fair treatment for all LGBT people is just now coming to fruition.
Now we face far more personal challenges. Like our heterosexual counterparts entering the “Golden Years,” we face the issues of retirement, growing health concerns, and the considerations of what to do when we can no longer care for ourselves. We also have to deal with increasing isolation, as we lose family, friends and partners and our ability to be social becomes more and more limited.
But, as LGBT people, we have the added burdens of entering our elder years still facing discrimination, lack of understanding of our needs, and the reality that many of us won’t have families of our own to help care for us.
Many, if not most, seniors, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, will at some point need to rely on publicly and privately financed long-term care services: home health care services and senior centers in order to stay in their homes or in the homes of partners, friends or relatives; assisted living or skilled nursing facilities if continuing to live at home is no longer feasible. LGBT seniors face a long-term care system that is unaware of their particular needs, if not actually hostile.
Clearly, LGBT seniors face unique challenges that they may not be able to face alone. And Whitman-Walker Health is here to help with not only medical care, but mental health services and legal help.
We currently offer two therapy groups for LGBT seniors age 60 and older (one group for lesbians, bisexual women and transwomen, the other for gay and bisexual men and transmen) for issues related to aging. These groups are professionally facilitated and can be covered by Medicaid, Medicare or private insurance. Call 202-939-7631 if interested. We also offer a “Gay Men Over 50” peer support group. Call 202-797-3580 to register.
Recently, our Legal Services Program has expanded to help LGBT seniors obtain adequate long-term care and health care services; address discrimination; obtain all of the Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other public benefits to which they are legally entitled; and protect their visitation and decision-making rights in hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, nursing homes, assisted living facilities and other long-term care settings.
Let’s help each other continue to survive and thrive as we get old together.
Joe Izzo is a 65-year-old gay man, trained as a geriatric social worker, and has been a psychotherapist in Mental Health Services at Whitman-Walker Health for 22 of his 27 years as a full-time staff member.