The Social Security Administration in August began processing claims for benefits for those in same-sex marriages, the latest in a chain of federal agency responses to the Defense of Marriage Act court decision. While this is a big step forward for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community and marriage equality, much remains to be done.
LGBT seniors face several particular concerns as they age. They tend to have less money, are in worse health and they are much more likely to be alone, compared to heterosexuals.
For LGBT seniors who were in the workforce over the past 30 to 40 years, discrimination because of sexual orientation often resulted in them making less money than heterosexual counterparts. Being passed over for raises and promotions was routine and termination common if sexual orientation was discovered.
Lesbians especially were and remain at a particular disadvantage given that women, on average, make less money than their male counterparts. While the tides in recent years are changing in regards to LGBT tolerance in the workplace, the seniors of today were not so lucky.
Health also plays a role in many LGBT seniors’ fiscal situations. The success of “drug cocktails” to treat HIV has fortunately resulted in many individuals living full lives well into their senior years. Because until only recently, life expectancy for someone diagnosed HIV-positive was limited, many people with this disease did not plan for long-term retirement. Also, the expense for maintaining the drug regimen to treat HIV over a lifetime is estimated at more than a half-million dollars.
As LGBT seniors’ health deteriorates with age, they will often be forced to enter a retirement home if they are not in a financial position to have long-term care in home or do not have family members or loved ones to care for them. Institutional care can mean going “back into the closet” because of fear of discrimination and to protect themselves emotionally around seniors who may not understand or accept their lifestyle.
According to a 2011 study commissioned by the San Diego LGBT Community Center, more than one-fourth of the 400 LGBT senior respondents said they sometimes, often or almost always attempt to hide their sexual orientation from neighbors or others; 31 percent reported feeling embarrassed when asked about their sexual orientation. This can result in further isolation and increased depression.
LGBT seniors tend to have fewer children than their heterosexual counterparts. This, coupled with rejection from other family members, can lead to limited or no family caregivers. According to the study by the Center, 68 percent of local LGBT seniors said they had neither family nor friends to count on for support or assistance. Only 18 percent of respondents who had younger siblings said they could count on them for assistance. More than half said they had not planned well enough for their retirement. Twenty-three percent said their annual income was less than $20,000.
So what needs to happen to make certain we are supporting this vulnerable population and allowing them to live the lives they want and deserve?
First, there needs to be an increase in housing, health care and social welfare services dedicated to San Diego’s LGBT senior population. This means agencies that specifically support LGBT seniors and mainstream seniors’ organizations must ensure that policies and procedures are in place to ensure that everyone — regardless of sexual orientation, race or religion — is welcomed and provided equal services.
I am proud that Senior Community Centers is just that sort of place. Our basic philosophy is that “we leave judgment to a higher pay grade” and every senior is welcome to be part of our community.
Lastly, while our world is becoming more tolerant of others’ lifestyles, I urge you to continue doing so in the workplace, in your everyday life and to share this philosophy where you can.
A wise man once said, “Love has no limits, only people do.” This could not be truer when you speak about the LGBT community. We all have a responsibility as humans to love and support one another.
Downey is president and CEO of Senior Community Centers, a nonprofit agency dedicated to keeping San Diego seniors healthy and independent. Learn more at www.servingseniors.org.