The need to belong is primal in human beings. Not belonging, or being in a state of loneliness, is detrimental to our overall well-being. As many people age, they lose partners and friends, which makes them susceptible to being alone. For many LGBT elders who lose a partner or friends, the situation can be even more dire. Without the familial unit that many heterosexual couples share, LGBT elders are often on their own in many situations, with no one to turn to.
Studies have identified that living alone is a risk factor for loneliness later in life. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, over one-third of adults over the age of 65, and one-half of adults over the age of 85, are living alone. The number of elders is also increasing. As the population of seniors living alone grows, so too will the epidemic of loneliness.
Yes, I did call loneliness an epidemic. Loneliness does not only affect an individual’s mental health, but it also affects physical health. Many of us can imagine how loneliness can affect hypertension or even diabetes, but it can even negatively impact outcomes with diseases like cancer.
Many elders in our community are long-term survivors of HIV and are dealing with the comorbidities that come with aging. When loneliness is added to the equation, we have even more negative health outcomes. Data suggests that focusing efforts on reducing HIV stigma and loneliness may have lasting effects in reducing major depressive symptoms and improving health outcomes among older adults living with HIV.
HIV stigma is not the only stigma that affects our community. As we all learned from recent events in Virginia, prejudice and intolerance are still very much alive. Our elders came of age at a time when you could be imprisoned for being LGBT in many parts of the United States, and they are even more sensitive to that reality.
Studies have found that LGBT elders are more apt to suffer from loneliness than their heterosexual counterparts. One study, which unfortunately did not have any trans-identified participants, showed that loneliness was highest among LGB older adults who had experienced minority stress factors. Older LGB adults who had experienced negative treatment because of their sexual orientations, as well as aging LGBs who expected this negative treatment, had the highest levels of loneliness. Interventions aimed at decreasing feelings of loneliness among our elders should be focused on the enhancement of social activities within our community.
So how do we deal with loneliness? How do we move the needle toward the positive? How can we have an impact that will not only affect LGBT elders’ mental health but also their physical health? A recent study found that mutual support groups were an answer. The study followed weekly discussion groups using topics chosen by participants and themes associated with music, readings and photographs. Results suggested that mutual support groups have the potential to offset loneliness, helplessness and depression.
A similar study among older lesbians in England that explored loneliness and isolation found that a biweekly social group positively impacted such feelings. Although the group did not completely alleviate loneliness, it provided a place of safety and offered sanctuary where participants could be themselves and where friendships and other groups were formed. Such groups can play a vital role in promoting older LGBT adults’ well-being and offering protection against loneliness and isolation as we age.
If we can move the line on loneliness and isolation in the LGBT elder community today, we stand a fighting chance when the numbers of LGBT elders explode over the next couple decades. One quote from the England study was particularly striking: One of the participants, when speaking about being isolated, stated that it was “the price you paid for being a lesbian.” That is a weight that the younger generation of LGBT people does not carry. The belief that you deserve to be alone because of your identity as an LGBT person is stunning, and should be a call to action for all of us.
Michael Byrne currently serves as the board president of Philly AIDS Thrift, the co-chair of the LGBT Mummers’ Liaison Committee and a volunteer with the LGBT Elder Initiative. Byrne is also an MSW candidate at Bryn Mawr College studying to be a therapist, focused on moving the needle on loneliness in LGBT elders.