The human body experiences many changes as it ages. The immune system weakens, chronic illnesses can develop and the body takes longer to recover from illness or injury. Yet it can be hard to talk about these changes, especially if we don’t have safe places to discuss our health with providers who are knowledgeable and sensitive to the unique needs of LGBT people.
The medical community has tremendous knowledge and resources at its disposal to detect and effectively treat many of the health issues that impact older adults. Unfortunately, barriers still exist that can prevent LGBT elders from fully accessing these resources.
In AARP’s 2018 study, “Maintaining Dignity: Understanding and Responding to the Challenges Facing Older Americans,” 52 percent of LGBT older adults expressed concerns that discrimination or prejudice would negatively impact the quality of medical care they would receive. Additionally, 57 percent of the LGBT respondents worried that healthcare providers would not be sensitive to their needs as LGBT patients.
Facing discrimination or an inhospitable environment is never comfortable and can perpetuate many of the health disparities that already impact LGBT communities. Experiencing discrimination in healthcare settings can lead individuals to delay seeking important medical care for fear of how they will be treated.
Delaying care can cause many health issues to worsen or go undetected, in many cases making medical interventions less effective. This is particularly significant given that LGBT older adults have higher rates of several physical and mental health issues that would benefit from medical treatment.
Medical research has shown that LGBT older adults experience high rates of disability, obesity and HIV, which may put them at risk for other chronic illnesses and even premature death. One national health study from 2011 also revealed that 31 percent of respondents in the LGBT community met the clinical diagnosis for depression and 39 percent had seriously thought about suicide at some point in their lives.
The roots of these health disparities are often complex and don’t come with a simple fix. The LGBT elder population faces higher rates of poverty, housing instability and experiences with discrimination, all of which contribute to physical and mental health. Still, the negative effects of many health issues can be reduced through routine medical care. Additionally, doctors and healthcare professionals also can help individuals to make lifestyle changes that will improve their physical and emotional health, such as exercising more, staying socially connected and eating better.
However, getting these benefits from the medical community requires that LGBT people have access to healthcare resources that are safe, affirming and LGBT-inclusive. While further training is needed in the medical field to improve the LGBT cultural competence of healthcare providers, additional supports also are needed in the community to help LGBT people connect with current resources and services that are LGBT-friendly.
To help bridge these gaps in access to knowledge and care, the LGBT Elder Initiative launched a new partnership in 2018 with the Jefferson Center for Urban Health and the Jefferson Department of Family and Community Medicine, creating a free program series called “The Doctor Is In” to educate LGBT older adults about critical health issues.
Through this programming, Jefferson geriatricians have delivered monthly health presentations to audiences of LGBT older adults on topics including fall prevention, cancer screenings, advance-care planning, stroke prevention, dementia and mental health. As we move into 2019, we’ll examine issues including palliative care, sexual health, pain management and cardiovascular disease.
We’ll start our 2019 programming by talking about bone health, including issues of osteoporosis and bone-density loss. Jefferson doctors will discuss the risk factors and preventative measures for bone disease and share tips for improving bone health.
David Griffith is director of programs and outreach for the LGBT Elder Initiative. To learn more about the initiative and upcoming programs for LGBT older adults, visit www.lgbtelderinitiative.org.