There are an estimated 3 million openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) seniors in the United States…and that number is growing as the Baby Boomers enter retirement. It’s a large market of prospective residents for the senior living industry. However, a 2013 study conducted by Erin Fitzgerald, MPA, and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force examined the compounding negative effect a lifetime’s worth of healthcare and economic discrimination has had on LGBT seniors–the end-result being fewer senior living options, either because of poor health or insufficient retirement savings. Some notable findings from the study:
- Employment discrimination is experienced repeatedly by many LGBT people throughout their lives. Such discrimination reduces the odds that LGBT people and their families will receive the benefit of employer-provided health insurance.
- Discrimination in the workplace can lead to financial insecurity, which can result in LGBT seniors skipping preventative healthcare and catching issues early when they are more treatable.
- Heterosexism, discrimination, and transphobia are not uncommon in the healthcare industry. A 2011 study found that older LGBT adults have more health problems, both physical and behavioral, than their straight counterparts with equivalent income.
- Social isolation and a lack of family or community support can have a significant impact on the mental and physical health of LGBT seniors.
- Until recently, many federal and state laws made it difficult for LGBT seniors to access entitlement and safety net programs that married straight Americans benefitted from, increasing aging LGBT Americans’ economic vulnerability.
While the overall findings of this study are likely unsurprising to most members and champions of the LGBT community, Americans have witnessed historic strides toward equality in recent years, including the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage in all 50 states. And LGBT seniors are finding more acceptance and an increasing number of resources and protections available to them.
LGBT-friendly retirement communities
Most everyone wants to live in a community where the neighbors are accepting and like-minded, though prejudice is still all too common in this country. But seniors are finding more and more retirement living options that are LGBT-friendly.
With the 3 million openly LGBT seniors in the U.S. in mind, senior living neighborhoods and facilities are increasingly including anti-discrimination policies in their mission statements, and there are even a growing number of communities specifically tailored to LGBT seniors.
The Montecito is a resort-style LGBT assisted living facility in Santa Fe; Stonewall Gardens, an assisted living facility in Palm Springs, California, and Fountaingrove Lodge, a continuing care retirement community (CCRC) in Santa Rosa, California, are both custom designed to meet the needs of LGBT seniors. While these facilities are geared toward the LGBT community, in the spirit of tolerance, they also welcome straight residents.
These have long-been a variety of organizations to support and advocate for seniors, probably most-notably the AARP. But more recently, there are also an increasing number of groups, even government agencies, designed to bring awareness to and support the unique needs and aging issues of the LGBT senior community. A few examples:
- Gay and Lesbian Association of Retiring Persons, Inc. (GLARP)
- National Resource Center on LGBT Aging
- Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE)
The federal government, as well as a growing list of states are passing legislation that affords the same rights and benefits to same-sex married couples as are given to straight couples. Perhaps most notable was the 2015 Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges, which held that marriage is a constitutional right protected by the 14th Amendment and that states cannot deny any couple that right, including same-sex couples. The decision went on to say that same-sex marriages performed in other states must be recognized even in states that have banned them.
This case was an important milestone in the fight for LGBT equality, especially as it pertains to survivor rights and benefits for married couples. One of the case's namesakes, Jim Obergefell, wanted his home state of Ohio to acknowledge his marriage to his partner, John Arthur, who was terminally ill with ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease). Without the recognition of their marriage, legally performed in Maryland, Obergefell would not be listed as spouse on Arthur’s death certificate.
The ramifications of the Supreme Court case go far beyond acknowledgement of gay marriage. That legal victory will help determine who makes medical decisions for a sick or dying person, who receives real property, pension dollars, or insurance money when someone dies, who is granted guardianship of children, and much more.
Parity for LGBT seniors
While our country still has room for improvement when it comes to full equality and acceptance of LGBT citizens, great strides have been made in the decades since the Stonewall Riots. From legal reform to well-organized advocacy groups, the U.S. is generally becoming a more tolerant place for members of the LGBT community. And as the number of openly LGBT seniors continues to grow, more and more senior living communities are looking for ways to welcome them with open arms.
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