Advocating for LGBT inclusion in the State Plan on Aging

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With the many needs facing LGBT older adults today, it is essential that individuals responsible for crafting laws and policies are doing so in response to feedback from our communities. It is especially important that lawmakers are listening to the community members who would be most impacted by a change in law or policy, especially those who are otherwise marginalized by the current system. It is incumbent upon us, as community members and advocates, to communicate our needs and concerns to these policymakers to make sure that their proposals will effectively address the disparities that impact our LGBT communities. 

Over the coming months, the Pennsylvania Department of Aging will develop its State Plan on Aging for 2020-2024. The Department of Aging is required to complete a State Plan on Aging every four years to provide a framework for delivering services to older adults across the state. The State Plan covers the services facilitated by the Department of Aging, including caregiver support, meal programs, housing, protective services, transportation, health and wellness programs, the ombudsman program, and prescription assistance. The State Plan also provides direction to the Commonwealth’s Area Agencies on Aging (AAA), the county-level administrators responsible for implementing services at the local level.

There are many issues and concerns within our LGBT older adult communities that have never been addressed in these State Plans on Aging. LGBT older adults often report reluctance to access aging services out of fear of discrimination or mistreatment. In many parts of the state, homecare providers and senior housing complexes can refuse service to LGBT people on the basis of their identity. LGBT older adults face high rates of isolation, which can have detrimental effects on our physical and mental health. Individuals in our community are disproportionately likely to be single, live alone, and not have children or grandchildren, leaving us more reliant on professionals and the services delivered by the Department of Aging and the provider network.

It is vital that the next State Plan on Aging take major steps to address the needs of LGBT older Pennsylvanians and to make a strong commitment toward achieving health equity for LGBT elder populations.  

The Pennsylvania LGBTQ Aging Workgroup is focusing our advocacy efforts on this State Plan and the opportunities to finally address issues facing LGBT elders and older adults living with HIV. The Workgroup, which operates under the Pennsylvania Commission on LGBTQ Affairs, has already identified several priorities for the next State Plan and has been working with the Department of Aging to translate these issues into tangible policies. But the Department also needs to hear from older Pennsylvanians and service providers about their first-hand experiences and what they want to see in the next State Plan.

The LGBTQ Aging Workgroup has developed a survey to strengthen our advocacy around inclusion in the next State Plan. The goal of this survey is to collect feedback from LGBT community members, older adults living with HIV, and service providers that can be used to demonstrate community needs, gaps in services, and opportunities for policy interventions.

The survey can be accessed at bit.ly/StatePlanPA. The LGBT Elder Initiative is also carrying the survey on our website, lgbtelderinitiative.org. 

Survey data will help us to better communicate our community’s concerns to state policymakers and to ensure that policies adopted in the next State Plan are reflective of the needs of LGBT older adults and people living with HIV. What trainings does the provider network need to complete to be able to serve us with greater inclusivity? Where could funding be used to bolster outreach and services to LGBT people? What issues are emerging in our communities that no one is talking about? 

Later this spring, the Department of Aging will conduct a series of listening sessions across the Commonwealth to hear further from aging service professionals and community members. These listening sessions will provide opportunities to give direct feedback to Department of Aging administrators on opportunities to further address LGBT aging issues. The schedule for these listening sessions will be available on the Department of Aging’s website, aging.pa.gov, in the coming months.

Information gathered from our survey and through these listening sessions will help to develop plans for improved outreach, community education, data collection, and provider training so that aging care professionals can more effectively support us as we grow older. Through strong community advocacy, we can ensure that the State Plan on Aging takes the historic step of finally prioritizing the needs of LGBT elders and older adults living with HIV.     

Heshie Zinman is a co-founder of the LGBT Elder Initiative and currently serves as the Co-Chair of the Aging Workgroup of the Pennsylvania Commission on LGBTQ Affairs.