New report outlines problems faced by LGBTQ+ nursing home residents

  • by Lou Chibbaro Jr., Washington Blade
  • Monday March 25, 2024
Share this Post:
A new study emphasizes the need for culturally competent care for LGBTQ+ people living in nursing homes. Photo: SeventyFour/Shutterstock
A new study emphasizes the need for culturally competent care for LGBTQ+ people living in nursing homes. Photo: SeventyFour/Shutterstock

A recently published academic journal article by two University of Indiana researchers reports on problems faced by LGBTQ+ older adults living in the nation's nursing homes and recommends actions nursing homes should take to ensure LGBTQ+ residents are treated equitably and without bias.

The article, entitled "Postacute Care and Long-Term Care for LGBTQ+ Older Adults," was published November 9 in the peer reviewed journal Clinics In Geriatric Medicine. It is co-authored by geriatric physician Jennifer L. Carnahan, a research scientist with the Regenstrief Institute, which is affiliated with Indiana University's Center for Aging Research and Andrew C. Picket, an elder care researcher and assistant professor at Indiana University's School of Public Health in Bloomington. Carnahan also serves as an assistant professor of medicine at the Indiana University School of Medicine.

"Cultivating an inclusive and LGBTQ+ culturally competent nursing home culture means that all staff and clinicians should receive training specific to working with this group and time should be allocated for this to reduce staff burden," the article states.

It points out that while some older LGBTQ+ adults fear being forced into the closet while in a nursing home, "they also simultaneously fear unwanted disclosure of their sexual orientation or gender identity status, and their autonomy should be respected either way."

The article says there are more than 15,000 nursing homes in the U.S. that provide rehabilitative and skilled nursing care to mostly older adults. It notes that nursing home residents fall into two distinct groups — post-acute care residents who often can return to their own home after recovering from an illness or injury; and long-term care residents who are no longer able to care for themselves. It says that among the long-term care residents in nursing homes, about 50% are living with dementia or another type of cognitive impairment.

According to the article, LGBTQ+ older adults "at a minimum have the same risk of dementia as the general U.S. population, and dementia increases the risk of nursing home admission."

Among the article's recommendations is that when new residents are being admitted to a nursing home, whether for short term or long term, "standard practice should be to ask sexual orientation and gender identity questions of every new resident along with other demographic identifiers." Doing this "normalizes sexual and gender minority status," and can also "help to reduce the invisibility and health disparities" that LGBTQ+ nursing home residents experience.

"For transgender individuals, the personal care received in nursing homes can be supportive, as intended, or traumatic," the article states. When nursing home staff provide assistance to transgender persons unable to care for themselves, "such as toileting or bathing, they may become newly aware of a resident's transgender status," the article says, adding, "If staff are not prepared for such an unintentional outing and how to react in a supportive manner, they may demonstrate microaggressions." That type of biased reaction can be psychologically harmful for a transgender resident, the report states.

"We think about younger LGBTQ+ individuals and the challenges and risks of their lifestyles, but older adults in this population are often forgotten," co-author Carnahan said in a statement. "They've experienced many health disparities. As these accumulate over a lifetime, we see the potential long-term ill effects of being from a marginalized population," she stated.

"More and more LGBTQ+ older adults are comfortable being out with their providers, while many living in nursing homes fear unwanted disclosure of their sexual orientation or gender identity status," Carnahan stated. "Their autonomy should be respected either way so they can age in an environment where they feel safe, where they feel comfortable and where they are able to live with dignity."

The article points to a 2018 survey conducted by AARP, which advocates for people over the age of 50, that found most LGBTQ+ older adults, when considering entering a nursing home, "anticipate neglect, abuse, refusal of services, harassment, and being forced back into the closet."

The article says this fear of abuse and stigmatization may be related to older LGBTQ+ adults' experiencing anti-LGBTQ+ bias in their younger years.

"Health care workers across disciplines are not well trained in care for LGBTQ+ older adults," the article says. "Stereotypes and inadequate knowledge of the LGBTQ+ population are not uncommon among those who care for older adults," it says. And it says LGBTQ+ residents in nursing homes may also face stigmatization from other residents.

"Training programs that engage nursing home staff in LGBTQ+ cultural competency can remediate staff knowledge and ensure more equitable care," the article stresses.

In addition to calling for better training, the article includes several other recommendations, including providing legal advice to LGBTQ+ nursing home residents on how best to assign the legal authority to make decisions about their care if they become incapacitated and unable to make those decisions for themselves.

Carnahan said in an interview with the Washington Blade that obtaining legal advice about designating a trusted surrogate to make medical decisions for them if they are no longer able to do that is especially important for LGBTQ+ nursing home residents. In at least some cases, LGBTQ+ people are estranged from their biological families and may have chosen families, Carnahan points out. Without having assigned legal health care power of attorney to someone of their choosing, under the laws of most states, the biological family becomes the entity that a nursing home will go to in making these health-related decisions for all residents, including LGBTQ residents.

The article also provides a list of LGBTQ+-related resources for nursing homes and LGBTQ+ older adults considering entering a nursing home. Among the resources on this list is the Long-Term Care Equality Index prepared by the LGBTQ+ organizations Human Rights Campaign and SAGE, an LGBTQ+ elders advocacy organization. The index is a document that identifies LGBTQ+-supportive facilities, including residential facilities and nursing homes.

SAGE, based in New York City, arranges for LGBTQ+-supportive training for older adult residential facilities across the country and designates facilities that SAGE believes are LGBTQ+ supportive as "SAGECare credentialed" facilities, which are listed in the Long-Term Care Equality Index.

"It is the case now that in almost all states there are one or more elder care facilities that have been trained throughout our SAGECare program," SAGE CEO Michael Adams said in a recent interview. "But it's nowhere near where it needs to be," he said. "It needs to be that there are welcoming elder care facilities in every single community in this country" for LGBTQ+ elders.

The article by elder care researchers Carnahan and Picket reaffirms Adams' claim that most U.S. nursing homes don't have the type of LGBTQ+ supportive credentials advocated in the SAGECare program. The two stress in their article the need for all nursing homes to take steps to train their staff on LGBTQ competency issues.

"Yes, that's what I would like to see," Carnahan told the Blade. "I would like more nursing homes and assisted living and even senior communities to embrace cultural competency and embrace the SAGE designation," she said.

Carnahan said a common impediment to nursing homes providing LGBTQ+-related training is it is sometimes difficult to set aside the time to do that because of the busy and often stressful work involved in operating a nursing home. "Working in a nursing home is very hard work. I've done it," she said.

"What leadership really needs to do is to say this is important enough to me that I'm going to set aside a couple of hours where you don't have critical duties and they just want you to participate in this cultural competency training," Carnahan concludes. "And that's what really needs to happen."

The journal Clinics In Geriatric Medicine has a policy of not releasing articles it publishes to the public who are not paid subscribers to the journal until one year after an article has been published. Additional information about the topic of LGBTQ+ nursing home residents can be found on these sites from the Regenstrief Institute, culturally appropriate and inclusive care and long term care.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. is a reporter for the Washington Blade, an LGBTQ newspaper in Washington, D.C. This story is part of News is Out's Out & Aging series made possible by support from AARP. It was previously published at News is Out.

Never miss a story! Keep up to date on the latest news, arts, politics, entertainment, and nightlife. Sign up for the Bay Area Reporter's free weekday email newsletter. You'll receive our newsletters and special offers from our community partners.

Support California's largest LGBTQ newsroom. Your one-time, monthly, or annual contribution advocates for LGBTQ communities. Amplify a trusted voice providing news, information, and cultural coverage to all members of our community, regardless of their ability to pay -- Donate today!