LGBT Aging Comes of Age and Holds Lessons for All Elders

By de Vries, Brian | Aging Today, July/August 2011 | Go to article overview

LGBT Aging Comes of Age and Holds Lessons for All Elders


de Vries, Brian, Aging Today


As an area of research and focus for programs, LGBT aging is coming into its own. Complex issues affecting the LGBT older population are gaining recognition, and there are more services tailored to address these issues. This trend has deep relevance forand beyond- LGBT lives, not only providing overdue attention to this often hidden population, but also revealing rarely considered issues about the fluid nature of families, the forms and sources of support characterizing LGBT elders and others leading non-traditional lives. The study of LGBT aging provides a perspective encouraging creative and novel considerations of how and with whom we ageeven what it means to be old. (See Page 7 for the In Focus section on LGBT issues.)

The older LGBT population is challenged and bolstered by its experiences and demography. As reported in the March 2011 Institute of Medicine report (The Health of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People), later life may bring with it particular physical and mental health issues for LGBT elders. Recent research reveals higher levels of psychological distress (particularly among older gay men with potential gender role attributions), higher incidence of cancer (particularly reproductive cancers among older lesbians and bisexual women, perhaps owing to nulliparity) and HIV/AIDS (primarily among gay and bisexual men).

Health issues for transgender persons, although still poorly understood and understudied, are thought to be made more complicated by the introduction of hormones for those who have transitioned from one biological gender to another. Soon-to-be-released research (Caring and Aging with Pride) reinforces community-based surveys reporting high levels of disability among almost half of older LGBT respondents, too. Although HTV/ AIDS plays a role, higher incidences of asthma and diabetes were also noted. Causes and mechanisms for these elevated rates are unknown.

Support Through Families of Choice

Caregiving becomes particularly crucial, especially when considering that LGBT older adults (older gay men particularly) are significantly less likely than heterosexual women and men of comparable age to be in partnered relationships and to have children- two groups most frequently called upon to provide care. In the absence of conventional family support systems, upon which policy is often predicated, LGBT persons place a high value on friendships, what some call "families of choice," or to quote novelist Armistead Maupin, "logical kin."

The 2010 MetLife/ASA national survey of LGBT baby boomers found that almost two-thirds of respondents said they had a family of choice. A high proportion of LGBT baby boomers also said they would turn to these friends for a variety of needs (support and encouragement, errands, emergencies) as well as offer friends such care. Following the onset of HIV/AIDS and the nation's initial non-response, LGBT people sought and found each other, creating services to meet needs and, in the process, creating a sense of community.

Crisis Competencea Matter of Survival

In a similar way, several authors have proposed that LGBT older adults have fashioned a sense of hardiness and competence out of a lifetime of surviving as a sexual or gender minority in a heterosexual environment- a strategy that may bode well for success in the challenges of later life. …

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