The Blank Canvas of LGBT Elder Care in Philadelphia

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Do you think one day you could be 55 years old? How about 65? Do you think about what kind of life you can have at 75? 

Before the 1800s, no country in the world thought of life expectancy beyond 40. But today, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Americans 65 and older will outnumber American children by 2035.

As advocates for elder LGBT rights, we must identify, and offer solutions for, the challenges that currently exist for LGBT older adults. While some experiences of aging are similar to those faced by non-LGBT people, there are unique barriers encountered by LGBT older adults, particularly around the types of care available to them as they grow older. 

Statistically, LGBT older adults are more likely to be single, childless and estranged from their biological families. Many have instead formed “families of choice” consisting of friends, neighbors and loved ones. Families of choice can offer great camaraderie and support, though are often not equipped to provide the daily caregiving one may need in their later years. 

Without support systems that enable aging independently, LGBT elders are more likely to rely on nursing homes or other institutional settings to provide long-term care.

In a recent study released by AARP, “Maintaining Dignity: A Survey of LGBT Adults Age 45 and Older,” LGBT people expressed significant fears about the treatment they would receive in longterm care settings. Two-thirds of LGBT respondents expressed fear of being neglected in nursing homes. Sixty percent feared being verbally or physically harassed in long-term care settings due to being LGBT.

Fears of having to conceal one’s identity in order to access long-term care are very real for LGBT elders, especially for transgender older adults. In AARP’s study, 70 percent of transgender and gender expansive respondents anticipated having to hide their identity in order to access care.  Many aspects of elder care, especially in nursing-home facilities, are both personal and private. They include activities such as bathing, dressing and grooming.

Improving the long-term care system for LGBT people is a top priority of the Elder LGBT Advocacy Committee, which includes members from the Mayor’s Commission on LGBT Affairs. The purpose of this committee is to improve and assure human rights, and to respect the dignity of Philadelphia’s LGBT elders.

The LGBT Elder Advisory Committee is chaired by Gigi Nikpour from Community Legal Services and Chris Bartlett of the William Way LGBT Community Center. Both are members of the Mayor’s Commission on LGBT Affairs and work closely with Amber Hikes, executive director of the Office of LGBT Affairs. The committee membership includes representatives from Action Wellness, the Center for Advocacy for the Rights and Interests of the Elderly (CARIE), Mazzoni Center, SAGE, SeniorLAW Center and the LGBT Elder Initiative, as well as LGBT elders, activists and advocates.

The committee aims to improve access for LGBT elders to healthcare and long-term care services. This work includes educating residents in long-term care facilities about their rights as residents and the remedies available if they encounter discrimination from other residents or staff. The committee also pushes for legislative action to strengthen protections for LGBT residents.

Thom Duffy, who has been an activist since the early 1990s (as an artist, athlete, and an exhibition curator), is the secretary of the committee. He started working with the committee out of a passion for the human rights and care of LGBT elders. Duffy sees the Elder Advisory Committee as “a platform for diverse elders of all sexual orientations, gender identities, races, abilities, and influences to come together and share their contribution to improving care for LGBT elders of Philadelphia.” 

The committee is seeking additional members to help in the push for an improved long-term care system for LGBT older adults. Committee members are also interested in hearing about the experiences of LGBT individuals who have engaged with the long-term care system. Anyone interested in getting involved, or willing to share their stories, can contact [email protected] 

 

If you or someone you know is currently in a long-term care setting and encountering anti-LGBT treatment, contact the Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program at CARIE (215-545-5724) or Center in the Park (215-844-1829).

 

Written by the LGBT Elder Advisory Committee and commissioners of the Mayor’s Commission on LGBT Affairs.