Old age isn’t for sissies, queer icon Bette Davis famously said.
Lately, as a lesbian and a boomer, I’ve wondered about this. Earlier this month, like many of my generation, I recalled a milestone of my youth. Fifty years ago on Feb. 9, 1964, the Beatles, in a moment that transformed our culture, appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Then, our parents were aghast over the Beatles’ unkempt hair (it went below their ears!) and the subversive tilt of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Recently, watching Paul McCartney, 71, on the piano and Ringo Starr, 73, on the drums on “Hey Jude” on CBS’s “The Beatles: The Night That Changed America – A Grammy Salute,” I thought: we boomers may not be, as Bob Dylan sang “forever young,” but getting old looks damned good. At least if you’re Paul or Ringo.
Straight people aren’t the only ones leading fab lives as they age. LGBT boomers and elders are going strong from singer and musician Elton John, 66, to tennis and gay rights icon Billie Jean King, 70, to newly out TV morning show co-host Robin Roberts, 53. Ellen DeGeneres, 53, will host the Oscars next month and actor Ian McKellen, 74, is appearing in “Waiting for Godot” and “No Man’s Land” on Broadway.
For many of us who aren’t celebs, old age isn’t the misery that it was for our grandparents. Fifty-something, 60-plus or even 70 are far different for most of us, with our Smart Phones, gym workouts and online dating, than for our grandparents. Thanks to better health care, we’re living longer and more productively.
Half a century after Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, far fewer elders live in poverty, according to a recent Akron Beacon Journal analysis of Census data. Fifty years ago, according to the Beacon’s analysis, 27 percent of seniors lived below the poverty line. Today, nine percent of elders live in poverty, the Beacon reported earlier this month. While the poverty rate among seniors has declined, the population of people over 65 in the United States has doubled to 40.8 million.
Why has the poverty rate so dramatically decreased among seniors? Not surprisingly, experts on aging told the Beacon Journal: because of Social Security, Medicare, pensions and 401k programs. “That is a success story,” Harvey Sterns, director of the Institute for Life-Span Development and Gerontology at the University of Akron told the Journal.
Despite this apparent good news, I can’t help but wonder: Are things that wonderful for seniors – especially for LGBT elders? Americans worry (only 26 percent) far less about getting old than people in other countries according to “Attitudes About Aging: A Global Perspective,” a report released by the Pew Research Center last month. I worry about this – especially one finding from the report. “In only four countries–South Korea, the U.S., Germany and Britain–do more than one-third of the public say that the primary responsibility for the economic well-being of people in their old age rests with the elderly themselves.”
This finding is scary, especially for LGBT elders. The social safety net, which had its beginnings in the New Deal, has kept many seniors from living in poverty. Yet, even with Social Security, numbers of elderly in the LGBT community live in or near poverty. Medical expenses (not paid for by Medicare of Medicaid), housing and other expenses keep LGBT seniors below the poverty line. Some were unable to find work in their earlier lives due to homophobia. Ageism within the queer community contributes to their hardship.
In an age of partisan politics and budget cuts, it’s frightening to think that the social safety net in place for elders could be diminished. Most of us want to be independent. We don’t want government to solve all our problems. Yet as we age, we hope that the government, along with our community, will be there for us.