Ageism with Heterosexism: Self-Perceptions, Identity, and Psychological Health in Older Gay and Lesbian Adults

Article excerpt

Abstract

The proportion of older adults in the population is increasing. Accompanying this demographic trend is a growing interest in the antecedents of optimal ageing; however, there is a paucity of research investigating how the ageing process differs as a function of sexual orientation. It has been suggested that compared to heterosexual older adults, gay and lesbian older individuals may be at an increased risk for psychological maladjustment to ageing due to the combined effects of ageism with heterosexism. The purpose of this review is to critically appraise the literature on homosexual orientation, internalised homonegativity, ageing adjustment, and psychological well-being in later life. Published findings to date suggest important differences in psychological adaptation to ageing between and within gay and lesbian groups; in fact, two themes emerged from the literature; 1) crisis competence (the experience of one form of discrimination facilitates coping with another) and 2) accelerated ageing (the negative outcome of experiencing multiple forms of discrimination). These phenomena appear to be moderated by sexual orientation and gender. Some current theoretical and methodological limitations in the field are considered in an attempt to support future research.

Keywords: ageism, heterosexism, accelerated ageing, crisis competence

Introduction

There are an increasing number of older adults in industrialised populations. This trend is primarily due to the ageing generation of 'baby boomers'; however, it is also associated with longer life expectancies, with figures indicating an increase in longevity of approximately three months per year (Oeppen & Vaupel, 2002). Accompanying this demographic trend has been an increased interest in the nature and predictors of well-being in the ageing process, with a particular focus upon the antecedents of optimal psychological health and well-being.

Amid ageing studies, however, there is a shortage of research that investigates the psychology of ageing in older homosexual individuals. A search of the PsycINFO database revealed that across all domains of psychology a total of 86,456 peer reviewed publications relate to either 'ageing', 'aging', 'elder', 'elderly', or 'older'; however, only 575 of these papers (0.7%) included key words such as 'homosexuality', 'homosexual', 'gay', or 'lesbian'. As a result of this relative dearth of research, scholarly journals such as the Gay and Lesbian Issues and Psychology Review (2006) and Developmental Psychology (2008) have recently published special issues that reiterate the need for knowledge on how sexual orientation influences human development throughout the life course, with a specific focus on the experiences of homosexual individuals.

A considerable challenge for any gay or lesbian individual is to develop, and foster, positive self-regard living as a homosexual within a largely homophobic society in which institutionalised and societal heterosexism continues to exist (Morrow, 2001). Over time, not only do older homosexual people likely encounter ongoing discrimination associated with their sexual orientation, they may also endure ageism that manifests itself via stereotyping, prejudice, and blatant discrimination. Moreover, there is some research suggesting that age discrimination is more prevalent in gay communities (Fox, 2007).

Prevailing negative age stereotypes are detrimental for our elders, as negative attitudes toward older adults affect their psychological well-being. Garstka, Schmitt, Branscombe, and Hummert (2004) found that older individuals (presumably heterosexual) who perceived age discrimination experienced lower reports of self-esteem and life satisfaction compared to those who did not perceive ageism. However, ageing homosexuals may face even greater amounts of ageism than heterosexuals, and age-based prejudice in combination with sexuality-based prejudice may result in an even greater decline in psychological health in older gay and lesbian individuals compared to heterosexuals. …