It's about time (to focus on LGBT seniors)

  • by David Campos, Scott Wiener, and Christina Olague
  • Wednesday January 11, 2012
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Aging. Let's face it, as a community aging is not our favorite topic of conversation. But it's time we had a discussion.

There are about 25,000 LGBT people 60 years of age or older currently living in San Francisco. That number is projected to double to 50,000 by 2030 as the massive baby boomer generation ages. Nationally, there are approximately 1.5 million LGBT seniors (over age 65) in the U.S. now and the number is expected to reach 3 million by 2030.

That's a lot of people, so what else do experts know about LGBT seniors? Unfortunately, not much. Only a few studies have looked at LGBT senior issues like housing, architectural barriers, in-home care, social services, health and mental health, disparities in government benefits and legal rights, aging with HIV/AIDS, financial and elder abuse, and discrimination and harassment, among other issues. The few studies that are available raise serious questions that we should all be concerned about.

A 2010 study by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force cited three significant and unique factors negatively affecting LGBT seniors: 1) effects of social stigma and prejudice " past and present; 2) lack of support from families defined by marriage or biology in care systems that don't allow for flexible definitions; and 3) inequitable laws and programs. NGLTF also noted that LGBT seniors are more susceptible to poverty as a direct result of living with decades of discrimination. LGBT seniors are also less likely to have a spouse or children to rely on as part of their support networks, and are more likely to live alone, relying on fewer financial resources than straight seniors. Another study of LGB aging adults (50-70) at UCLA in 2011 found numerous disparities including significantly higher rates of hypertension, diabetes, depression and other mental health problems.

Perhaps most alarming, the studies noted that almost 90 percent of LGB seniors surveyed said they feared suffering discrimination or harassment in their senior facilities due to being out about their sexual orientation. This fear leads many LGBT seniors to conceal their orientation or gender identity in senior facilities, even if they had been out prior to moving in.

You may not have given much thought to how you will spend your senior years, but your plans probably don't include being forced back in the closet. It goes without saying that members of the LGBT community have just as much of a right to age with dignity as everyone else. So, how prepared are we " both as a city and as an LGBT community " to actively support a high quality of life for our seniors?

San Francisco has a few programs that specifically address senior LGBT issues. Through the Department of Aging and Adult Services, the city provides LGBT-specific activities at the Castro Senior Center and other centers. DAAS also provides sensitivity training to private agencies that serve LGBT seniors to help create accepting and supportive environments at the places where LGBT seniors live or go seeking services since most of the senior clients at those facilities are heterosexual.

But, what else do LGBT seniors need to achieve and retain a high quality of life? There is a surprising lack of research or data to answer questions about LGBT seniors, either on the local level or nationally. That's one of the reasons we are co-sponsoring a hearing at the Board of Supervisors about the issues affecting LGBT seniors. The hearing will occur on January 26 at 1 p.m. before the Government Audit and Oversight Committee. We hope the hearing will be the start of a conversation about LGBT seniors and what it is like growing older in San Francisco.  We also want to empower LGBT seniors by creating opportunities for direct public input, so we would like to hear from you about your experiences and what more the city and community can do to help you maintain a high quality of life in San Francisco for as long as possible.

San Francisco has developed models of care in the past that have been replicated in other parts of the country, such as the systems developed in response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. San Francisco should put itself in a position to play a similar lead in developing model services and programs for LGBT seniors and aging adults.

Let's start the conversation. It's about time.

David Campos, Scott Wiener, and Christina Olague represent, respectively, District 9 (Mission, Bernal Heights, Portola), District 8 (Castro/Upper Market, Noe Valley, Glen Park, Diamond Heights), and District 5 (Haight, Western Addition, Japantown, Inner Sunset) on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.  Each district contains a large LGBT population.