No one ever said aging was easy.
If you are blessed with family, friends, and a responsive community, you may find it a bit less challenging. If you are lacking such resources, you are likely to find it harder.
On May 23, the Bergen County section of the National Council of Jewish Women will sponsor a program addressing the needs of people who often face special challenges as they get older. In a talk focusing on the needs of LGBTQ older adults, Benjamin Fisher, the health and wellness coordinator for Garden State Equality, will discuss the factors that cause this group special concern.
Marilynn Friedman, co-vice president of education and advocacy for NCJW’s Bergen County section and coordinator of this year’s five study sessions, pointed out that the program is a follow up to the section’s November 9 forum on LGBTQ issues, held at Teaneck’s Temple Emeth.
“There’s a dearth of resources available to older adults who are LGBT,” Mr. Fisher said. “They tend to go back into the closet when they enter certain facilities, either because they feel it might be hostile or because the staff is not well trained.”
Pointing out that “family structures are different for LGBT individuals,” he noted that many members of the LGBT community do not have children, and so lack the support that children might provide. “They may have lost a partner, they may live alone, they may not have advance directives, and maybe they don’t have a legal relationship with their partner,” which raises many other issues, he said.
According to SAGE, Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders — the New York-based organization created in 1978 to improve the lives of older LGBT adults — these seniors are “twice as likely to live alone, half as likely to have life partners or significant others, half as likely to have close relatives to call on for help, and four times less likely to have children to help them” than older straight adults.
While they may share some problems — the loss of a partner, for example, or the lack of a living will — with the general population, others hit this community especially hard. “In general, the population living with HIV is overrepresented” in this group, “and there’s a statistic that says that by next year, 50 percent of people with HIV will be in the older adult range,” Mr. Fisher said.
At a recent meeting of Brooklyn’s Griot Circle, a community-based organization that addresses the needs of older LGBTQ people of color, Mr. Fisher learned that “health providers for older adults assume that they aren’t sexually active, but they are, and HIV and STIs are still a concern. Often, they’re not offered counseling.”
In addition, he said, “With transgender people who have undergone a medical transition, there are certain hormones that increase the risk for certain kinds of illnesses. There are a number of health concerns faced by this population that most older adult providers aren’t thinking about.”
Some healthcare providers are beginning to implement more LGBT-inclusive record-taking, medical forms, health histories, and interviews, and “this will help ameliorate some of these issues,” he said, adding that intake forms are a good way of starting a conversation. “It’s good to ask those questions of everybody,” he said. Anticipating the objection that asking these questions may offend non-LGBT people, “they’ll just have to get used to it,” Mr. Fisher said.
Mr. Fisher grew up in South Carolina, “so I can relate to the older generation,” he added. “When you grow up in a conservative environment, you can relate more to people who feel reticent.” He noted that many people assume that “things are great in certain states, but it’s not true. There was a terrible case in Mississippi, where a funeral home refused to handle the remains of an 80-year-old gay man.”
He has done extensive advocacy work on health care access, racial justice, gun control, and LGBTQ issues, and has worked for various organizations, including Planned Parenthood South Atlantic in North Carolina. In his work with GSE, he has made presentations to the Psychiatric Nurses Association as well as to the New Jersey Hospital Association.
Mr. Fisher said that while the educational work his organization does is mostly youth-focused, the health and wellness component has seen a high demand for content on LGBTQ older adults. “We have a project, Pledge and Protect, starting in Montclair,” he said. “We’re funded to work there specifically, but our hope is to eventually expand to the rest of the state.”
He began the project by collecting contact information for hundreds of eldercare providers in the state and sending letters to 500 of them, asking “if they will sign a pledge to be more welcoming and inclusive” to LGBTQ adults.
By making providers aware of the history and unique needs of this population, he hopes to foster the creation of a safe environment for them. Garden State Equality has developed training modules to help with the transition faced by many LGBTQ older adults. Montclair, he said, was selected as the pilot city, since one of GSE’s offices is located there. The group’s headquarters is in Asbury Park.
According to Mr. Fisher, there is “a self-selecting group of people” who feel that the issue of LGBTQ older adults is an important one.” When giving presentations, he said, he often asks himself, “Are the people who need to be hearing this actually in the room?
“Transgender issues are particularly difficult for some people,” he noted, recalling one training session where a patient advocate asked, “What if a non-transgender patient is put in a room with a transgender person and expresses discomfort? Should we respect that?” Mr. Fisher said that while that certainly is one option, it lays the groundwork for a lawsuit for discrimination. He pointed out that people could not get away with that if their discomfort was in rooming with a black person or a Jew.
Thinking ahead to who might attend his talk, he said, “Even if you’re not LGBTQ, you probably know someone who is. If you have some sort of awareness and come with an open mind, maybe you can help link them to services they need and may learn something helpful for your own life, such as more about advance directives.