LGBT Elders and Long Term Care

In thinking about sexuality among people with disabilities it’s important to consider all sexual orientations. It’s often assumed the disabled, elderly, and the very young are heterosexual. For service providers and families this heterosexist attitude can remain intact until it is unexpectedly challenged such as when a grandfather comes out of the closet after a long life of marriage, and raising his family.

Among gay elders entering nursing homes, exists a fear of being forced back into the closet. Many are concerned they will be harassed, taunted or neglected. In a recent survey of residents, staff, ombudsmen, and family members, authors of LGBT Older Adults in Long Term Care Facilities: Stories from the Field reports that of 278 gay elders 78% of them felt they could not be open about their sexual orientation when in a nursing home.

This story illustrates the theme of many comments:
Two friends of mine, Vera and Zayda, had been together for 58 years. When Vera’s Alzheimer’s became too much, Zayda moved her to an assisted living facility. Zayda could barely trust family or neighbors with the truth, let alone strangers, so she and Vera became “sisters.” Much later, after Vera’s death, Zayda needed to move into an assisted living facility herself. She had many, many photos of the love of her life, but dared not display them in her new home. The other residents would talk about husbands, children and grandchildren, but she felt too vulnerable to tell the truth. Zayda was in hiding and terribly isolated. —Nina L., Carlsbad, CA

As our elder population grows, more and more gay men and women will be seeking aging services. It is the responsibility of service providers to become competent in the culture, needs, fears and desires of gay men and women. This is not an issue we want to be behind the curve on.

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