“Build your village right now,” Woody said.
A few years ago, I would have said that my then-husband would be my primary caregiver if I became ill or disabled. I’d have done the same for him. Now I’m 65 and divorced, and this issue — who can I call on? — is top of mind for me.
It’s also a serious concern for many LGBTQ people I know, whether single or partnered. Take one friend of mine, for example, who is 60 and a single gay man. He took care of his dying father last year (as I’d done four years earlier with my parents). During his dad’s lengthy illness, we talked about two questions that terrify us (and I don’t use that word lightly): “Who will take care of us when we need help?” “Where will we go when we can no longer take care of ourselves?”
Of course, aging is an equal opportunity challenge for straight and queer people alike. But in interviews with more than four dozen LGBTQ people, singled and partnered, I heard repeatedly about the anxieties faced by queer elders.
SAGE, a nonprofit group that provides services and advocacy for LGBTQ elders, the National Resource Center on LGBTQ+ Aging, and Healthypeople.gov document the health challenges LGBTQ people face. We’re twice as likely as our straight counterparts to be single and live alone, which means more likely to be isolated and lonely. We’re four times less likely to have children. We’re more likely to face poverty and homelessness, and to have poor physical and mental health. Many of us report delaying or avoiding necessary medical care because we face discrimination or mistreatment by health-care providers. If you’re queer and trans or a person of color, these disparities are heightened further. (There are about 3 million LGBTQ people 50 and older.)
“It’s a very serious challenge for many LGBTQ older people,” said Michael Adams, chief executive of SAGE. “The harsh reality is that there just aren’t as many opportunities for older LGBTQ folks when it comes to creating, building and maintaining social connections. … We’re lacking the personal connections that often come with traditional family structures.”
In part, that’s because LGBTQ people have often found themselves rejected by family, friends and community in their younger years because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. To boot, we could not legally marry until 2015, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality. But even married queer folks can end up alone after a divorce or death, which often brings different challenges than those faced by straight people facing the same life-changing events.
An 80-year-old lesbian put it to me this way: For straight people, “If you were to go into a nursing home, you would not have to worry that people taking care of you did not approve of your orientation, or that the facility would not take you because they were a ‘religious’ community. These are real issues for the queer community.”
Another friend tells me he has no plans for the future except a guest room and a second bathroom. And another said he hopes by the time he needs care, there will be an LGBTQ senior community in his city. “Otherwise, I have nothing,” he said.
A former colleague of mine, a lesbian, told me she worries about the cost of senior living: “I dread it all. I won’t have any dough then, so it’s really up to fate.”
Senior living communities, which provide support for the aging, can be less than welcoming to those who are LGBTQ. Staff, some of whom have traditional views on sexuality, gender identity and marriage, also pose challenges to LGBTQ elders since many facilities lack the training and policies to discourage discrimination, which can lead to harassment, Adams said.
Patrick Mizelle, who lived in Georgia with his husband, told Kaiser Health News several years ago that he worried about how “churchy” or faith-based their local options seemed, and feared they would not be accepted as a couple. “Have I come this far only to go back in the closet and pretend we are brothers?” he asked.
Rather than take that risk, they moved across the country to a queer-friendly senior living complex in Portland, Ore. They are among the lucky ones in that they could afford both the move and the cost of this domestic situation.
How do you find a welcoming LGBTQ senior living arrangement? SAGE publishes a comprehensive list of long-term care facilities (organized by state and city, along with level of care) that it has found to be welcoming.
“We also have resources about the kinds of questions that a consumer can ask to figure out if a provider is paying attention to the steps that need to be taken to become more welcoming to LGBTQ older adults,” Adams said.
SAGE also offers training to staff members at facilities that provide elder care, and has partnered with the Human Rights Campaign, the national LGBTQ lobbying and advocacy organization, in launching the Long-Term Care Equality Index, which sets out best practices to help make these facilities welcoming to the LGBTQ community. More than 75 facilities have made pledges to abide by these best practices. AARP also provides a list of affordable LGBTQ-welcoming senior housing.
What else can LGBTQ people do to find connection, to find a tribe? Many suggest the importance of developing intergenerational friendships early on in life, even as early as your 30s and 40s. Elders can impart wisdom and experience to younger LGBTQ people, who can provide help in return; as decades pass, the young ones become the elders.
Recently, the Modern Elder Academy, which refers to itself as a “midlife wisdom school,” and the founders of Death Over Dinner, launched a program called “Generations Over Dinner” expressly to connect people of all ages.
The Harvard Study of Adult Development, which began tracking more than 238 men (regardless of sexual orientation) in 1938 and continues to this day, has reported consistently that relationships are the critical ingredient in well-being, particularly as we age.
Put simply, the more connected we are, the more likely we are to be healthy and happy. To paraphrase Imani Woody: Start building those bridges.
This article was originally published in The Washington Post on October 23, 2022.