There’s a critical emergency facing Pennsylvania’s LGBTQ community, yet it is barely discussed and remains mostly hidden.
It is the crisis of how to care for the state’s aging LGBTQ population and the myriad problems those Pennsylvanians are facing every day in the Commonwealth.
According to the U.S. Census, 14.5 percent of the country is aged 65 or over. Pennsylvania has the second-largest demographic in the county of people aged 65 and over — more than 16 percent of the 13-million population. Among those nearly two million Pennsylvanians are more than 150,000 people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, among an estimated 2.5 million or more LGBTQ elders nationwide.
Where will they go as the age? Who will take care of them? How will they integrate into straight-owned and run nursing homes and assisted-living facilities? How will they be treated by management, staff and other residents? Who will pay for their care?
The Pennsylvania Department. of Aging’s LGBTQ Aging Summit, held Oct. 9 and 10 in Harrisburg, provided a plethora of compelling and alarming statistics, as well as suggestions and plans for the near and not-so-distant future. A series of panels and speakers laid out what it means to be LGBTQ and elderly in the commonwealth, and just how little has been done to prepare for the wave of Baby Boomers that represent the first generation of out LGBTQ people turning 65. By 2030, more than 20 percent of Americans will be over 65.
That these aggregate statistics represent numerous people struggling with the complications of aging while simultaneously being part of a marginalized community was among the many concerns addressed at the summit, which was attended by a mix of social workers, medical professionals, LGBTQ activists, older citizens and caregivers.
AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) premiered a short animated film on LGBTQ history from an intersectional perspective, “A Living History of the LGBT Movement,” part of a storytelling series honoring past, present and future heroes of the movement. (The film is online at AARP.org/PRIDE.)
Teresa Osborne, secretary of the state’s Department of Aging, outlined what the agency is doing to secure better futures for LGBTQ elders. Physician General Dr. Rachel Levine discussed the breadth of health issues facing gay, trans and other queer-identified people seeking long-term elder care.
Todd Snovel, executive director of the state’s commission on LGBTQ Affairs, stated outright that as much as “I love Philly and Pittsburgh,” concerns about the rest of the state outside the biggest cities were increasingly pressing and significantly different from those in more urban areas.
According to data given by Dr. Nii-Quartelai Quartey, National LGBT liaison for AARP and the featured speaker on Oct. 10, the biggest fears facing LGBTQ elders are isolation and discrimination. In a whirlwind of statistics and data points, Quartey detailed the results of an AARP study of LGBTQ people aged 45 and older, “Maintaining Dignity: Understanding and Responding to the Challenges Facing Older LGBT Americans.”
Quartey explained that three out of four adults age 45 and older who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender say they are concerned about having enough support from family and friends as they age. The study also determined that many LGBTQ elders also worry about the treatment they might receive in long-term care facilities, particularly the homophobia, biphobia and transphobia they might face. The study found that most surveyed want specific LGBT services for older adults. As Quartey noted, for many LGBTQ elders, their history had meant that at some point, “if you were honest about who you are, you could be killed.”
Quartey raised the specter that many fear: that after a lifetime of being openly LGBTQ, elders will have to retreat to a closet to protect themselves from discrimination and/or harm for the remainder of their lives. Qaurtey told the heartbreaking story of Marsha Wetzel, who, after her partner of 30 years died, was evicted from the home they shared by her late partner’s siblings.
Wetzel moved to a long-term care facility. When she revealed she’d been in a long-term relationship with another woman and that they had raised a child together, she was brutally harassed and attacked by other residents. The facility refused to help her and Wetzel sued for discrimination.
Wetzel won her case through Lambda Legal on Aug. 27. Lambda Legal argued that Wetzel was subjected to verbal and physical abuse by other residents because of her sex and sexual orientation and that Glen St. Andrew Living Community in Niles, Ill., had failed to protect her from discrimination and abuse.
Quartey’s presentation of Wetzel’s story elicited some gasps from attendees and highlighted the dangers that so many LGBTQ elders face when partners die and they are left to manage on their own.
The Fair Housing Act, which was enacted 50 years ago, was applied in Wetzel’s case, but in the past, courts — as the lower court had ruled in Wetzel’s case — rejected when this protection was used by LGBTQ people. Wetzels’s case is groundbreaking.
But as the panel featuring providers explained, efforts must be made to educate the community outside and inside residential facilities. Doreen Hespell, director of Montgomery County Area Agency for Aging, explained how she’d had to read up on LGBT history to educate herself about what LGBTQ elders might feel and face coming into facilities. She noted that there are more than 60 nursing homes in Montgomery County alone.
Linda Marucci, a long-time social worker in the Philadelphia LGBT community who works for the Southwest Senior Center, explained how the intersection of race — the center’s client base is mostly black — had to be factored in, but that something as simple as putting out rainbow flags at local gatherings and making rainbow cupcakes were small ways into discourse with the larger, non-LGBTQ community.
It was a full summit, yet only scratched the surface of discourse on the many issues around aging, with affordable and low-income housing a priority. Dr. Imani Woody, founding director and CEO of Mary’s House for Older Adults, explained how important it is for LGBTQ elders to have space that feels welcoming and safe. “Collectively we cannot build enough housing” for LGBTQ elders, so accessing alternative housing is essential, she said.
Woody also explained how staff needs to be educated about the special medical and social needs of LGBTQ adults, including sexuality and dementia.
Quartey put it succinctly when he borrowed from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s phrase, “the fierce urgency of now” with regard to prioritizing elder care.
Arthur Breese, director of diversity and inclusion at Geisinger Health System, said the most crucial thing to be done for LGBTQ elders is to “create an atmosphere of belongingness.”
For more information, contact the Pennsylvania Department of Aging at 717-783-1550 or visit the website at www.aging.pa.gov.