What is the LGBT Aging Project?
We work to ensure that LGBT older adults and caregivers In Massachusetts have equal access to resources, services, and programs. When we started the LGBT Aging Project in 2001, we realized that the needs of LGBT elders weren’t always understood by mainstream elder care providers, and the LGBT community wasn’t really mindful of older adults. We try to work in three areas: cultural competency training for mainstream elder care providers; community building and civic leadership for LGBT older adults themselves; and public policy and research to change the bigger picture.
What are the unique challenges facing LGBT elders?
LGBT elders face the same issues that the general population of older adults face, such as access to secure and adequate housing, financial issues, and maintaining a healthy social network. But LGBT older adults are significantly more likely to be aging alone – without a partner or spouse, without adult children, without the informal network we see as a support for all older adults. They face greater risks for health conditions like poor nutrition and the progression of memory disorders, which don’t get picked up when living alone.
The challenges of aging alone are documented in the film Gen Silent which shares the stories of 6 LGBT adults in the Boston area.
What kinds of programs does the LGBT Aging Project offer to improve the health of LGBT elders?
Our Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course combines mediation and a little body work/yoga. The course, which is supported by the Tufts Health Plan Foundation, has been very well received. People who were newly diagnosed with significant health problems or with injuries have reported that doing the MBSR helped relieve their stress.
We also offer LGBT bereavement groups, short-term groups for those who have lost a loved one. These groups create unique spaces where LGBT folks feel safe enough to talk about their loved ones and their relationships without fear of discrimination or judgment. We’ve also hosted a caregiver’s support group to offer caregivers relief and skills, as well as a place to talk freely about the unique challenges they face. The folks in this group often share their thoughts about meeting new healthcare providers, “Gosh, every time I have to take my partner to a new healthcare provider, we have to come out all over again. We’re not sure how people are reacting or whether they’re supportive of our relationship.” We are tackling the issues of social isolation and building peoples’ networks. We see a huge yearning for community. People appreciate being able to come and spend time with others on a regular basis; they feel more connected to the LGBT community and other older adults. That has a tremendous impact on the individual, regardless of their circumstances.
What do you find to be most rewarding about your work?
I’m proud to have helped raise consciousness and awareness of the concerns of the LGBT community in mainstream elder care over the last decade.
We also bring issues of aging to the LGBT community, which has fueled some intergenerational work. We help younger people value the generation who came before us and remind them that our LGBT seniors have a lot to offer.
Finally, we cultivate partnerships with allies. It’s not just LGBT folks who are carrying the torch. Both in terms of mainstream organizations and individuals, we have allies who are standing up and calling out the unique issues facing LGBT elders.
How would you make an age-friendly community more inclusive to the LGBT community?
We’re raising all of our consciousness around what makes a community age-friendly.
By asking people to be mindful of LGBT identities, we’re asking people to dig a little bit deeper: How do we think about what individuals need, and how do we create environments to be responsive to their unique needs?
I’ll share one example. A senior center decided to have a Valentine’s Day celebration for couples who’ve been married for 50+ years. It sounded like a lovely event, but when I reminded them that we’ve only had same-sex marriage in Massachusetts for a decade, they realized they were inadvertently excluding couples who hadn’t had the option to marry. They reframed it to celebrate long term relationships – if you’ve been in a relationship for 35 or 50 years, come join us and we’ll celebrate it. We want to help people to think about LGBT folks; we’ve been an invisible population for too long
The LGBT Aging Project helped with the Massachusetts Commission on LGBT Aging Report. What can we look forward to learning from this report?
Massachusetts is the first state to convene a statewide Special Legislative Commission on LGBT Aging. We’ve had a LGBT youth commission in Massachusetts for many years, and we were fortunate enough to have the legislature create this commission on LGBT aging. Over the past year, we’ve looked at numerous policy issues that impact the lives of LGBT older adults.
The report (PDF) is comprehensive, covering public health, long term support services, housing, and policy recommendations to enhance the lives of LGBT older adults. We also highlight the importance of comprehensive training for people who provide services for older adults. Data collection is another overarching issue, because it’s important to collect information about sexual orientation and gender identity. As they say, if you’re not counted, you don’t count.
What else would you like members of the MA Healthy Aging Collaborative to know?
Each person should challenge their own heterosexism.
What if with everyone you encountered, you avoided making the assumption that they were heterosexual, or that their gender identity is consistent with your perception?
How do we engage with people for who they really are? How do we find ways to convey that we’re inclusive and make sure that people feel like they’re respected and treated with dignity?