Sex, Senior Living and LGBTQ Elders: Willful Ignorance Is No Longer an Option

Article excerpt

The fear of homosexuality, gender differences and non-traditional erotic choices, behaviors and identities doesn't end in the world of services for the aging. LGBTQ elders instead tend to be ignored, as if they do not- cannot- exist. The overlapping issues of HIV and AIDS in elder populations are too often the only issues discussed; with sexuality and LGBTQ persons avoided by geriatric and aging professionals.

The broader cultural notion that sexual desire ends in old age still holds sway in geriatric institutions. As a nation, we have long dismissed the reality of sexual desire and erotic behavior in elder populations.

Some years ago, I interviewed staff at liberal nursing homes concerning their policies about recruiting LGBTQ elders. These were places that had indicated interest in serving LGBT elders. I was busy creating the first national LGBT Aging Curriculum for SAGE (Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders)- a curriculum intended for use in nursing homes and assisted living sites. I was particularly interested in determining how nursing homes and assisted living sites dealt with LGBT residents.

I interviewed more than 60 staff people at eight or nine sites. As a part of every conversation, I asked about sexual activities in general, how sexuality was thought of in regard to residents, how they dealt with sexual engagement between any older residents and how many LGBTQ seniors lived there.

Staff Denial

Without exception, every staff person who was not openly gay or lesbian told me they "had no problems" concerning sexual activities at their institutions because sex was not an important component of most elderly individuals' lives. Most staff interviewed said they had no known LGBTQ elders at their sites (although some would mention the occasional elder they suspected was gay or lesbian); and one told me a "horror story" about the time a transgender elder had lived at their nursing home. (Most staff members I interviewed seemed hardly able to contain their shock that there might be non-traditional gender identities in older adult populations.)

Almost to a person, each non-gay interviewee was very emphatic: Sex was not an interest or an issue for residents, or for older adults in general, so there were no educational activities regarding sex or sexuality at their institutions. Each non-gay interviewee was quick to reassure me they were "fine" with gay elders; and some said they were especially tolerant if gay residents weren't flamboyant (men) or too masculine (women).

I then asked about institutional policies on HIV and AIDS, safer sex education for residents and whether or not safer sex materials were provided. This question was important, because according to die National Institute on Aging, one quarter of all people with HIV/AIDS in the United States are age SO and older. Each interviewee repeated that since there were no gay people at their residences, and no one at tìieir residences had AIDS, there was no need for safer sex education, distribution of safer sex and HIV information, or condoms, dental dams, or sexual prophylactics of any kind. Many of die interviewees, however, did tell me that openly lesbian or gay men were employed at their institutions.

Many staff admitted to a singular worry about the consequences of outreach to LGBTQ elders: they were apprehensive that, if they were too welcoming, their site would be flooded with openly gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender applicants-which, they said, would create a serious problem. Not for them, of course, but for many of their heterosexual residents, who would be deeply uncomfortable with openly LGBTQ people. …