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LGBT Elders Face Extra Challenges

LGBT Pride Month begins June 1. While many situations are unique to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender experience, you many think aging is not. But there are increased risks for LGBT seniors. 

They’re twice as likely to live alone, twice as likely to be single and three to four times less likely to have children (Click here for more stories from LGBT elders in the Austin area).

About 1.5 million older adults in the U.S. identify as LGBT. Austin resident Ron Dyer, 69, is one. Dyer tested positive for HIV in 1988 and has had a variety of health problems since then.

“My breathing is a problem, it keeps me in the house, and my walking -- I can only go places someone is willing to take me, so I’m pretty much house bound,” Dyer said.

Dyer lives alone and depends on volunteers from the local organization Care Communities, friends, and his partner of 15 years for help.

“If I didn’t have all those things I would be really isolated,” he said. “I wouldn’t know how to cope, which means I wouldn’t be able to live on my own, which means I’d have to live in a rest home.”

Dyer says he’s never felt like he had to hide his sexual identity when seeking care, but he doesn’t announce it either.

“I’m sure everybody knew, but I certainly wasn’t admitting to it,” he said. “If someone wants to ask I tell them the truth. I don’t go around with a T-shirt and a sign.”

Kathleen Coggin with Family Eldercare says Dyer is like many other LGBT elders. Some, she says, even go back into the closet for fear of discrimination, or don’t seek treatment at all.

“Their support network is really much thinner than those of us in the heterosexual community, and so their isolation which leads to depression, which can lead to premature death,” Coggin said.

Coggin says that’s why Family Eldercare started Austin Gay & Lesbian Senior Services three years ago.

“The issues are the same for all aging adults, that’s not different; what’s different is making sure that the LGBT older adult and caregiver doesn’t face discrimination,” she said. “You know when someone comes in your home or call AGLSS or Eldercare that you’re talking to an individual that will be all-inclusive .”

AGLSS Coordinator Lisa Daly says being all-inclusive can be as simple as the wording on paperwork.

“You’ll have a place to put my partner, my husband, my wife, my significant other, to make people feel comfortable with who they are and expressing who they are here,” Daly said.

She says it also means educating and training care attendants about LGBT concerns and lifestyle.

“If I’m a caretaker and I walk into somebody’s home and it happens to be a gentleman who is asking me to paint his toenails or help with his hair, if I’m sensible and I’m knowledgeable, that is something that is going to be acceptable me,” she said.

AGLSS estimates it has helped as many as 15 gay seniors in Austin since 2010.  But Daly says that’s not an indication of the need out there. Experts say younger members of the LGBT community who act as caregivers to aging family members also encounter stress. 

Vanessa Broussard-Rosen and her partner of 36 years, Cindy, were looking for a nursing home for Cindy’s mother, Bonnie. Since they visit her every day, Broussard-Rosen says it was important to find a place they found accepting.

“That was the first thing I was concerned with, assessing situation and seeing how we were going to interact, making them aware of what our home situations was and seeing how they’re going to react to it,” Broussard-Rosen said.

She says they visited four nursing homes before finding one that was open to their relationship. At 54, Broussard-Rosen doesn’t need senior services yet. But she says LGBT couples need to fill out more paperwork to ensure their wishes and rights as a couple are preserved if something does happen.

“You don’t realize until you get in a situation, how am I going to deal with this?” she said. “You’re dealing with other next-of-kin who legally have more authority than you do. So if you get to the hospital and they’re there, then you may not be able to see your partner because you might not have the proper documentation.”

That includes everything from do-not-resuscitate orders to forms allowing the coroner to release a partner’s body. Broussard-Rosen says it’s upsetting.

“Technically my family unit is paying more tax money to subsidize the breeders in society, but having to put more money for legal documentation, more paper, that’s assumed or taken for granted by the rest of society,” she said.

And while everyone gets old, Austin filmmaker P.J. Raval says young people don’t want to think about it. His documentary about the aging LGBT population, Before You Know It, was screened at this year’s South by Southwest.

“One of the characters in the film says, ‘Young don’t people don’t want to look at us because we’re a reminder of what’s going to happen,’ and in a society that’s so youth-obsessed the thing you don’t want to think about is losing that power of youth,” Raval said.

He says he hope that when he gets old he won’t feel compelled to hide his sexual identity.

As the U.S. population overall ages, so will LGBTs. Hillary Meyer with Services and Advocacy for Gay Elders says things are different today, but it’s hard to say when the change will be complete.

“That discrimination and that bias certainly remains, and it’s getting better, but it’s hard to say when the tides will shift completely so that older adults will no longer need to worry about this,” Meyer said.

SAGE estimates that by 2030, the number of LGBT senior citizens will double to 3 million.

Correction: This story previously stated Kathleen Coggin's last name was Hoggins. It is Coggin.

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