Warning! Discrimination may be dangerous to your health: Findings from the Aging and Health Report
It should come as no surprise that our quality of life and level of stress over a period of years affect our present physical and mental health. Now, the Aging and Health Report shows specifically how a lifetime of discrimination, victimization, and restricted access to health care in the LGBT community leads to poorer health and greater likelihood of disability in old age.
Historically there has been little data on LGBT health, and what there was focused mainly on sexually transmitted diseases. For a long time conducting research was hampered by stigma, fear, underreporting, and researchers’ failure to ask the right questions, but this is changing. Health researchers are now starting to ask broader questions about sexual orientation and gender identity, and LGBT folks are proving that they are willing to answer them. Over 2,500 diverse LGBT older adults ranging in age from 50 to 95 from across the country eagerly participated in the Aging and Health Report, the first ever federally-funded study of LGBT elder health. Some of the participants had never before come out to anyone, but responded to the study because they wanted their life experiences to matter. The large sample size allowed researchers to break down the data further by age, race, income and educational level, and by L, G, B, and T subgroups, illustrating the tremendous diversity of LGBT elders and the importance of understanding how a person’s health and well-being is shaped by their intersecting group identities.
The study compared LGBT elders with their demographically matched heterosexual counterparts. The data showed that LGBT elders have higher levels of social risk, disability, mental distress, poor health habits, and illnesses including cardiovascular disease, obesity, and HIV. It also showed that all of these correlated strongly with a personal history of victimization, discrimination, internalized stigma, and restricted access to health services. On a positive note, the study also found signs of resilience among LGBT elders, that coming out and the experience of community belonging correlated with better mental health, and that the vast majorities engage in regular wellness activities including exercise and spiritual and religious activities.
Here are some selected report highlights:
- LGBT elders are less likely to be partnered or married (40% overall). Contrary to the general trend of elder women being more likely than men to live alone, within the LGBT community men are more likely to live alone than women.
- Lesbians and bisexual older women have a higher rate of cardiovascular disease and obesity than heterosexual women.
- By 2015, half of those living with HIV in US will be over age 50.
- 44% of LGBT elders reported a disability, with transgender elders reporting the highest rate. This, along with the fact that LGBT elders are more likely to live alone, means LGBT elders are more likely to require nursing home care in their later years.
- LGBT elders overall reported higher rates of mental distress. 39% of participants have considered suicide during their lifetime, with 39% of those reporting it was related to their sexual orientation or gender identity.
- 82% of LGBT elders have been victimized at least once during their lives because of sexual orientation or gender identity. 64% have been victimized 3 or more times. Transgender elders reported the highest rate (91% at least once, 77% 3X or more).
- Racial and ethnic minority LGBT elders experience heightened risk of victimization with cumulative impact. This was also true for those with incomes below 200% of the federal poverty level and those with a high school education or less.
- Bisexual and transgender individuals reported higher levels of internalized stigma than lesbians or gay men. LGBT elders age 80 and older reported the highest rates of internalized stigma, but lower rates of victimization than younger LGBT elders. LGBT men report higher rates of victimization and internalized stigma than women.
In our youth-oriented general culture, most people prefer not to think too hard about growing old, and some segments of the LGBT community are particularly averse. Those who are not yet there do not have many images of what it means to be both LGBT and elderly, and those who are there often feel invisible. Fortunately we are beginning to get a clearer picture.
 Karen I. Fredricksen-Goldsen, Aging and Health Report: Disparities and Resilience among Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Older Adults (Inst. for Multigenerational Health, U. Wash., 2011), available at http://depts.washington.edu/agepride/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Full-report10-25-12.pdf
Disclaimer: This information is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed, professional attorney regarding your specific situation.
Eleanor Doermann is an attorney providing estate and life planning services for all ages and stages of life, and public benefits advocacy. As a long-time member of the Seattle LGBT community, she has a special interest in and passion for educating individuals and couples about the ramifications of post-DOMA marriage equality law. Eleanor came to the practice of law after a 25-year-career as a physical therapist. She opened Pathway Law, PC in south King County in 2013. You can learn more at www.pathwaylaw.net or by calling 206-499-3289.