Many LGBTQIA+ seniors face challenges with healthcare, housing, and other necessities
Before she moved, Carolyn Davis, 65, remembers thinking about nursing homes, knowing she wouldn’t want to live in one. She feared she wouldn’t be able to exist there as her true self. “If I had to go to a nursing home, I would have to go back into the closet. That’s one of my biggest fears,” says Davis, who is a lesbian. The Chicago resident says she was always treated differently because of her sexual identity. “The first time I truly felt I could relax was when I moved here eight years ago.”
For Davis, “here” is Town Hall Apartments — Chicago’s first LGBT-friendly senior housing. The Center on Halstead, in partnership with Heartland Alliance, opened the six-story residential building in 2014. With 79 units for ages 55+, the facility features a senior center on the first floor in what used to be the Town Hall Police Station at the corner of Addison and Halsted Streets.
Now, Davis says, “My spirit is truly free.”
Not everyone feels as free as Davis, though. Aging can be a difficult life transition, and the 2.4 million Americans age 65 and older in the LGBTQIA+ community face additional challenges. Despite growing societal acceptance and advancements in legislation, factors remain that prevent many in this community from accessing appropriate healthcare, housing, and other necessities as they age.
Many LGBTQIA+ seniors still grapple with long-lasting trauma from years of mistreatment due to their sexual identity. This history of trauma and ongoing discrimination contribute to anxiety and depression in their senior years. It can set people on an isolated path, hurt their income potential, and breed fear and mistrust of medical providers.
Fortunately, in Chicago and across the country, several organizations are looking out for LGBTQIA+ seniors. They offer healthcare, housing, job placement services, financial assistance, and more.
One of the LGBTQIA+ community’s biggest vulnerabilities is social isolation, says Britta Larson, senior services director at Chicago’s Center on Halsted. LGBTQIA+ individuals are more than twice as likely to live alone and four times less likely to have children compared to their heterosexual, cisgender counterparts.
And social isolation often leads to poor physical and mental health.
“Accessing healthcare and navigating medical challenges can be difficult without the right social support,” says Aaron Tax, managing director of government affairs and policy advocacy at the national nonprofit SAGE. “Simple things like getting to appointments and asking comprehensive questions at an appointment present greater challenges for those who are socially isolated.”
For some, affirming care isn’t locally accessible. Older adults who live in areas without access to a culturally competent provider may have to travel far for checkups, treatments, and medications. These barriers are why 1 in 5 LGBTQIA+ individuals avoids seeking medical care for fear of discrimination.
If I had to go to a nursing home, I would have to go back into the closet. That’s one of my biggest fears.”
As the largest and oldest organization dedicated to improving the lives of LGBTQIA+ elders in the U.S., SAGE works to change this. Since 1978, the group has grown and now runs the National Resource Center on LGBTQ+ Aging, welcoming senior centers, and a national hotline. The organization also provides cultural competency training, educating more than 100,000 healthcare providers.
SAGE is currently fighting for the Equality Act, which would explicitly protect LGBTQIA+ individuals and same-sex couples from discrimination in a host of ways, including when individuals are seeking healthcare and in nursing homes or long-term care facilities. The bill is currently in Congress.
“We’re trying to remedy the discrimination and fear of discrimination by fighting for state and national long-term care bills of rights that would protect this community,” Tax says.
Access to housing
In addition to equitable healthcare, housing is another key issue for LGBTQIA+ seniors. Many seniors, like Davis, fear having to choose between living their truth and accessing quality healthcare or housing. Certain housing options may be less sensitive or outright discriminatory to residents’ identities.
“The more vulnerable a senior is, the more likely they are to go back into the closet,” Larson says. This can have lasting ramifications on mental health, as Davis feared.
“LGBTQIA+ seniors are more likely to have a fixed income as they age, so affordable, inclusive housing is important,” Larson says.
In addition to providing physical housing, Town Hall also offers support through community spaces, job placements, vocational training, and programming such as grief support groups. Two case managers also help coordinate medical appointments, medications, and government assistance.
Davis, for example, lives at Town Hall and also works for the Center’s food security program, a job that she loves. In her role, Davis helps set up coffee hours, boxed lunches, and community meals.
The Center’s holistic approach has helped foster a strong sense of community in the Town Hall Apartments. “The residents here are more than just neighbors,” Larson says. “They check in on each other, take each other to doctor’s appointments. There’s a sense of community that’s different than other senior residential communities.”
Despite the challenges, both Davis and Larson remain optimistic for the future. Larson points to the older LGBTQIA+ community’s resilience as a source of inspiration. “Many of these people have been outspoken activists throughout their lives,” she says. “Their ability to overcome has been pretty remarkable.”
With more younger adults identifying as part of the LGBTQIA+ community, access to affirming care will likely expand. “As this younger community starts to age, I think they’ll start to command appropriate treatment,” Larson says. “But we still have a long way to go.”
Davis says she feels hopeful. “We’ve come so far from where we’ve been. We have to keep on keeping on.”
SAGE administers the Long-Term Care Equality Index (LEI) with the HRC Foundation. This index is the first national benchmarking tool for LGBTQ+ inclusion in senior housing and long-term care communities. For more information, visit sageusa.org. To get in touch with the Center on Halsted, visit centeronhalsted.org.