Zeus Magazine Summer 2010
Are We Abandoning Out Gay Seniors?
By JL Jordan III
The Generation Left Behind
Remember the commercial, “HELP! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” Now if you were a heterosexual elderly individual someone would be there to pick you up, but who would be there to help an elderly gay senior? Has it got you thinking? Well, simply, the facts speak for themselves: according to the Brookdale Center for Aging, within the gay senior community 75% of individuals live alone. This is more than two times the general population. According to the Center, 90% of Gay seniors have no children and 80% have no family they can call on for help and support.
As the world continues to progress, the younger generation does as well, leaving behind the old ways and thoughts of the past, but our seniors are left to suffer. Research prepared by the Services & Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Elders (SAGE) has shown that the factors that most gay seniors have to face are poverty, lack of family, healthcare, and government assistance. These factors can lead to the increased chance for gay seniors to be hospitalized prematurely as well as to develop mental health problems.
The main criticism of the treatment of aging gays in this country is the failure to recognize that the family is an essential unit of treatment. For gay seniors, this becomes an issue of recognizing that the patient may not have a traditional family, and that a partner or sibling will be a critical component of the person’s care. Without proper training in alternative treatments from traditional geriatric assistance, the gay senior will not receive the same healthcare as a heterosexual senior.
However, the reality is that the gay community faces discrimination from home health workers, health care facilities, and physicians. Most employees in nursing homes, home health workers, are rarely, if ever, trained in dealing with the gay community. Not only are they oblivious to the needs and issues of the gay senior community, but also many discriminate against gays, lesbians, and bisexual and transgender people. For a gay senior this can cause a health care facility to be a high-stress and unhealthy environment, which will cause unease both mentally and physically. Research Dr. Catherine Barrett from the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS), based at La Trobe University, explained, “There is a hidden terror confronting gay baby-boomers and other older seniors who are not sexually mainstream – the prospect of confinement to the darkest closet of their lives.”
But there is hope; SAGE has become an important “safety net” for GAY elders. Incorporated by lesbian and gay activists and aging service professionals in 1978 as Senior Action in a Gay Environment, (SAGE) is the world’s oldest and largest non-profit agency addressing the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender elders. SAGE works with gay elders to address and overcome the challenges of discrimination in senior-service settings, while also being an essential component in the creation of informal care-giving support and development of new “family” networks.
However, the prospect for gay youth is not as bleak. As society becomes more accepting of the gay community, it will be easier to excel in the workforce and prepare for your future when you become a gay senior even if the gay seniors that are around now are not that lucky. They’ve had to deal with the discrimination of not being hired, or not being given a promotion because of how they live their lives. They were not able to rely on a partner for physical or monetary support. Not because their partner didn’t want to but because of the laws and legislation that prevented it.
Imagine you’ve been with you partner for 50 years. Your partner has been a city employee working for 30 years and about to receive their pension, and suddenly the unthinkable happens and they die. Now, if you were a heterosexual couple you would be entitled to the pension and their other benefits. However, if you are a gay couple you are entitled to nothing. If you think you would be entitled to receive a part of their social security, think again. This was the case in the death of the nation’s first openly gay congressman, Gerry Studds. Studd’s husband, Dean Hara, was denied pension death benefits by the federal government under the (DOMA). If Hara were a woman and married to Studds – rather than a same-sex spouse – he would receive $62,000 a year of Studd’s pension program under the congressional retirement system.
Instead, because of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, the federal government refuses to recognize the 2004 marriage between Studds and Hara in Massachusetts. Elderly gay individuals have been forced to live in the shadows because their community has abandoned them.
The more important question is why do we, as the next generation of the out and proud gay men continue to allow this unfair treatment to happen? We owe them more than that. Without their sacrifices we wouldn’t be able to live as out and proud gay men. The least we can do is help them up when they have fallen and can’t get up. Although like many, I am continuing to celebrate my 21st birthday again every year, the reality is, as an aging gay male, I have to stop and think about the future. I have a life partner and don’t want to have to deal with the same issues when I am officially a gay senior. And hopefully, I won’t have to.