Although many LGBTQ+ seniors have lived through the arc of the LGBTQ-rights movement, they are nevertheless often forgotten in conversations about discrimination. A new study is shedding light on that omission.
AARP Illinois and SAGE Research's "Disrupting Disparities: Challenges and Solutions for 50+ LGBTQ Illinoisans" is one of the first in-depth investigations into the lives of the aging queer community. Released Oct. 6, the study both uses data to contextualize economic, health and caregiving disparities and reports participants' personal experiences with discrimination.
"As we enter LGBTQ History Month, this groundbreaking research is a sobering reminder of how events of the past still play a role in the way LGBTQ adults 50-plus live today," said Mary Anderson, AARP Illinois director of outreach and advocacy for northern Illinois, in online press conference held Oct. 5 to announce the study's launch. "Because of decades of discrimination, LGBTQ older adults fall behind their non-LGBTQ counterparts when it comes to having health care they need, retirement savings and caregiving support as they age."
One participant, Don Bell, 72, is a retired Black gay Chicagoan who has dedicated his life to advocacy. He said he hopes the study will both change the way younger people interact with their elders and reintroduce his generation into the social justice conversation.
"As long as we are part of the general conversation, then our lives and our life experiences are normalized. We cease to be some strange exception that's out there, somewhere. We are trying to make a sea change in American culture," Bell said.
Discriminatory systemssuch as finance, housing and healthcarehave hindered this community's ability to prosper. Nearly one-third of LGBTQ+ seniors live at or below the federal poverty level, with poverty rates being even higher for LGBTQ+ older individuals.
The LGBTQ+ older population is also more prone to experience mental and physical health disparities due to lack of inclusive healthcare and social isolation, which Bell believes is one of the main issues impacting his community.
"Elders who are isolated, have no connection, no one to touch them, to talk to them, to interact with them, to make them feel connected to someone other than themselves, die from failure to thrive," said Bell.
Nearly 60% of LGBTQ+ older adults report feeling a lack of companionship, with more than 50% reporting feeling isolated from others.
Unlike many older adults who rely on their children to be their unofficial caregivers, many queer seniors can only turn to chosen families, as they may have been unable to marry or adopt for a majority of their lives. Consequently LGBTQ+ older adults are twice as likely to be single and live alone.
Even if an LGBTQ+ senior is living in a care facility, they may feel a need to hide their sexuality to minimize discrimination and social isolation. Living for years openly and then being forced back into the closet can be mentally debilitating, said Bell.
"Some people don't rent to you because you are LGBT," he added. "So, if you keep that to yourself...you get a place to live, but even if you're physically sheltered, you are not socially and emotionally sheltered, because you cannot live your authentic life ... Basically, it denies us our souls."
The study notes that these issues are further complicated by the intersection of other identities such as race and gender.
To help LGBTQ+ seniors, AARP's report outlines a series of institutional and societal changes that would help the aging community. This would include gathering more research, creating equal access to services, and calling on lawmakers to introduce inclusive policies to help the community.
However, for Bell, change begins with having a simple conversation and taking time to listen to each other across generational lines to place everyone on "the timeline of life."
"We have to put in the work so that those of us who are older have a legacy...and so that those of us who are younger don't run the risk of losing the advances that have been made," he said.
Bell encourages openness and vulnerability between the generations to better understand one another's unique needs, struggles and dreams.
"We want our lives to go on the best way possible and we want the lives of those who succeed us to go on in a much better way when we're gone," Bell said.
The report is available at https://disruptdisparitiesil.com/.