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SAGE and One Colorado Discuss LGBT Elder Americans Act

by Lindsay King- Miller
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday Dec 13, 2012

Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, along with One Colorado, Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE), and the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (N4A), held a teleconference last week to discuss Senator Bennet's proposed LGBT Elder Americans Act, introduced earlier this year. Older LGBT Americans are a growing sector of the population that is expected to double in size in the next twenty years, and which has historically been underserved by care providers and organizations.

"That is why my bill would encourage research and programs to reduce health disparities and improve health care access for LGBT elders," said Bennet.

The LGBT Elder Americans Act consists of a series of proposed amendments to the Older Americans Act (OAA) with the aim of improving services to LGBT elders by improving data collection on the needs of this population, permanently instating the National Resource Center on LGBT Aging, and prioritizing research and development grants for organizations working to improve LGBT-specific, culturally competent services.

Passed in 1965 as a way of overseeing and improving the services available to seniors, the OAA specifies that populations with the "greatest social need" should receive particular attention. Among other things, Bennet's amendments would define LGBT elders as a population of greatest social need, allowing more resources to be allocated to services specifically designed for this community.

"The 'greatest social need' categorization targets services and programs for people facing barriers caused by non-economic factors," said Bennet. "Many LGBT elders face these sorts of barriers, largely as a consequence of discrimination and a stigma that is still all too common in communities across our country."

Factors related to social isolation may impair LGBT elders' ability to access the kind of resources on which many older Americans depend. LGBT elders are four times more likely to be childless, and twice as likely to be unpartnered and living alone as their straight counterparts, due in large part to legal inequalities that make it substantially more difficult for LGBT people to establish those forms of traditional family structures. Lack of access to services is exacerbated by the fact that LGBT elders experience a higher rate of poverty than the general elder population.

"A certain amount of what SAGE does are things that, in a different context, adult children would do -- things like helping elders navigate the system to make sure they get their Medicare or Medicaid or food stamps or Social Security," said SAGE Executive Director Michael Adams. "We take the place of family members in these matters, because the majority of our people don't have those folks to help them."

Discrimination in health care settings is another issue that creates obstacles to accessing elder care resources.

"Many LGBT elders face social barriers, largely as a consequence of discrimination and a stigma that is still all too common in communities across our country," said Sen. Michael Bennet.

"A lot of our people report that if they're open about being LGBT they're not treated well," said Adams.

While some elders experience discrimination at the hands of care providers like doctors, nurses, and home care attendants, many more are mistreated -- or fear that they will be mistreated -- by their peers in settings like senior centers.

"One of the things which tends to come with aging is an increase in dependency," said Adams. Because this dependency makes LGBT elders vulnerable, many choose to retreat into the closet in hopes of ensuring their safety by hiding a part of their identity. This "re-closeting" can be emotionally damaging and lead to increased isolation.

"A vast majority of nursing homes would tell you they have no gay people," said Adams. "Statistically, that's not possible, but people don't feel they can be open."

Additionally, the fear of being mistreated causes some LGBT elders to avoid accessing services even when they are available and would be beneficial. By increasing organizations' capability to offer elder care providers cultural competency training in LGBT issues, the LGBT Elder Americans Act would help ensure that this community is able to make better use of the resources already available.

"We need competency training on this underserved population to know what their needs truly are," said Sandy Markwood of N4A during the teleconference.

Shari Wilkins of SAGE of the Rockies agreed that this was true of many providers of aging services. "There are many who are reluctant to confront a new kind of language or a new way of doing business," said Wilkins. "This would make it easier for them to make that transition."

Bennet is optimistic that his amendments for the benefit of LGBT elders, their families, and their caregivers will be passed when the OAA is re-authorized, which should occur in 2013.

"If it doesn't pass this year, we will re-introduce it next year," he said. "In the meantime, we share an important commitment to ensure that the growing community of LGBT seniors can live full and productive lives."


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