Older LGBT individuals confront serious, additional barriers to successful aging that their non-LGBT counterparts do not. Unfortunately, the needs of LGBT elders frequently go unacknowledged because older LGBT individuals are largely invisible to the rest of society, despite their significant numbers. Improving data collection on LGBT older adults is critical to increasing their visibility and to addressing their unique needs. For example, better data collection would translate into information for policymakers to effectively allocate funding for aging programs and services and for providers to better understand and serve their older LGBT clients. To that end, policymakers at both the federal and state levels should include language in aging laws and policies requiring data collection about this vulnerable constituency. Additionally, service providers should incorporate questions about sexual orientation and gender identity into their daily practice, by integrating them into the demographics section of all forms and surveys, for instance.
INCLUSION IN AGING PLANNING
Though aging services and programs are available to all individuals ages 60 or older, LGBT older adults are less likely than their cohorts to engage them due to past and present discrimination and to a lack of outreach specific to them. At the same time, they are more likely to be socially isolated, have poor health and healthcare access, live in poverty, and lack traditional sources of support and caregiving, such as children, sibling, or other relatives. Specifically including LGBT elders in state and aging agency plans on aging would serve to ameliorate these disparities and help to ensure that LGBT older adults are receiving services for which they are eligible. It would also facilitate the identification and service of needs specific to LGBT older adults, improve data collection, and increase technical assistance and training to service providers.
IMPROVING CULTURAL COMPETENCE
“Cultural competence” is the ability of providers and organizations to effectively deliver services that meet the social, cultural, and linguistic needs of the clients they serve. Improving cultural competence is important for LGBTQ older adults because they confront serious disparities that hinder their ability to age successfully but are less likely than others to seek public assistance, available mainstream services, and healthcare due to fear of discrimination. If providers and organizations expanded their awareness of this population and their unique needs, and then adapted their services to this understanding, it would help LGBTQ elders feel more comfortable accessing necessary services. For example, providers should increase their understanding of the legacy of discrimination LGBTQ older adults have faced and work mindfully to build their client’s trust. This includes not making assumptions about their client’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity and being aware of misconceptions, bias, stereotypes, and other communication barriers. They should also let their client know that they are in a safe space by displaying pro-LGBTQ materials, such as signs, stickers, or handouts. On a larger level, the incorporation of these kinds of culturally competent practices can help to improve outcomes and quality of care, as well as, contribute to the elimination of disparities faced by LGBTQ older adults.
SUPPORTING THE PASSAGE OF LGBTQ INCLUSIVE NONDISCRIMINATION LAWS
Many, if not most, of the disparities LGBTQ older adults confront are the culmination of lifetime of discrimination, much of which was, and still is, sanctioned by law. For instance, many LGBTQ elders lived the majority of their working years when employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity was legal and job opportunities for LGBTQ people were limited and unlikely to include health benefits and pensions. Though the legal landscape has changed significantly in the last decade, discrimination against LGBTQ people is still legal in many contexts. For instance, while the City of Philadelphia offers many protections to LGBTQ individuals, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania does not. In fact, Pennsylvania is the only Northeastern state where it is legal to discriminate against LGBTQ people in areas of employment, public accommodations, and housing. Moreover, no state law protects LGBTQ Pennsylvanians from violence against them based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation and/or gender identity. This lack of protection not only leaves LGBTQ people vulnerable in a number of circumstances but also implicitly sanctions and reinforces negative views that fuel discrimination, misconceptions, and stigma. The adverse effects of actual discrimination, such as being fired or denied housing, are fairly obvious. Less obvious is the psychological toll of the cumulative effect of the stigma and the fear, felt most acutely, perhaps, by those who have endured it the longest, LGBTQ older adults. In light of all of this, and the fact that the population of older LGBTQ individuals continues to grow, it is imperative to support the passage of LGBTQ inclusive nondiscrimination laws at the local, state, and federal levels.