LGBTQ face more challenges with age

By Emily Fasold

Recent decades may have seen homosexuality brought “out of the closet,” but research from the University of Washington suggests that the health of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered seniors has been left in the shadows.

The study, named Disparities and Resilience among Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Older Adults found that LGBTQ elderly—a population expected to double by 2030—face higher disability rates and physical and mental health problems than straight seniors.

Researchers surveyed 2,560 LGBTQ adults aged 50–95 and found that approximately 31 percent have clinical depression, 39 percent had considered suicide at some point in their lives and 47 percent were disabled.

This is inconsistent with straight seniors, who only have a 35 percent disability rate. Statistics on depression and suicide rates among straight seniors were not available in the study.

Experts are attributing this discrepancy to the LGBTQ community’s perceived discrimination at the hands of the health care system. Experts say the current system makes LGBTQ seniors less likely to get lifesaving screenings for cancer and other diseases.

“I certainly think that a mistrust of doctors contributes,” said Terri Griffith, who teaches Gay and Lesbian Studies at Columbia. “Even if the laws have changed for homosexuals they still might see [doctors] as the enemy, especially since they’ve lived through times where you could be institutionalized for being gay.”

The study also reported a higher poverty rate in the community, leading researchers to suspect that financial barriers are a factor in LGBTQ seniors shying away from health care. Since gay marriage and civil unions are illegal and stigmatized in many states, gays often don’t have the benefits of being covered by a spouse’s insurance or tax status, which could also contribute to their higher poverty rates.

“It’s important to realize that health care isn’t given to every citizen,” Griffith said. “[The LGBTQ community often] doesn’t have jobs that offer health care, and can’t be covered by their partner’s health insurance.”

Dr. Sara Gottfried, a Harvard-trained gynecologist and author of “The Hormone Cure,” said that insensitivity from health care systems and lack of research

also contribute to lower LGBTQ senior health standing.

“A really important part of trying to turn around this disparity that we have with [LGBTQ] senior health is for doctors to increase their sensitivity, understanding and compassion,” Gottfried said.

She also said certain medical factors can contribute to harder old age for LGBTQ seniors. For example, because lesbians are less likely to have full-term pregnancies, they are at a higher risk for developing breast and ovarian cancers.

The report, although bleak, did offer some good news. Researchers found that 89 percent of participants felt positive about belonging to the LGBTQ community, 55 percent had been sexually active within the last year and 82 percent engaged in moderate physical activity each day.

“It’s very true that individuals in the LGBTQ community very successfully build a lot of friendships, which really helps to buffer some of the isolation they may feel as they get older,” said Marc Agronin, author of “How We Age.”

The study emphasized that a strong, understanding community of peers and doctors is vital to addressing the unique issues of LGBTQ seniors. Many experts expect that as the LGBTQ community grows and becomes less marginalized with time, the gap between straight and LGBTQ quality of health will narrow.

“I do think that it’s changing over time as attitudes have been more open and the stigma has declined,” Agronin said. “I think it will be easier for successively older generations, but for the current [LGBTQ senior community], many of them have to face a very rough course.”