With the number of lesbian and gay individuals age 65 and over in the U.S. currently estimated to be between 1.4 and 3.8 million (and expected to double by 2030) research on this population is crucial. As LGBT persons age and become frail, they may need increasing care in residential care settings, such as assisted living and nursing homes.
There has been remarkably little research on the health, social support, and care needs of mature LGBT adults with regard to residential care settings and on the suitability of these settings to attend to their needs. This is important given the enduring biases against LGBT persons in both society and health care. Despite increasing openness about LGBT issues in society, heavy stigmatization still exists. In senior housing and in other health care settings for older adults, LGBT persons may be ignored, dismissed, and openly discriminated against, causing many to feel isolated, socially rejected, and at risk for unmet health care needs. This makes the research on the best arrangements for residential care all the more pressing.
Also important is the increasing longevity of those with HIV infections, an issue rarely considered in senior housing. This is a particular gap with respect to the African-American population, which experiences disproportionately greater HIV and AIDS rates and lesser access to health care.
As research has shown, interpersonal relations in assisted living and nursing homes are based on traditional concepts of heterosexual marriage and the biological (nuclear) family. We have found that assisted living and nursing home settings rarely consider alternative, non-standard social forms such as partnerships, same-gender marriage, and families of choice. Previous research indicates that families are critical in making key decisions about housing options for their aging relatives, and play a significant role in the adjustment of those residents as they move into residential care settings.
The Center for Aging Studies has expanded its research focus to include the unique challenges faced by older LGBT adults. Housed in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at UMBC, it is the administrative and intellectual home for funded research projects totaling more than $21 million. Topics of interest at the Center include quality of life and care, social relations within residential settings, autonomy, suffering, the culture of food, and diabetes in the urban community.
The Center is currently developing two research projects in the Baltimore-Washington area focusing on LGBT older adults. One study proposes to examine the health and care needs of older LGBT adults residing in assisted living and explore how these needs are being met. The goal of the second proposed study is to understand how community-dwelling lesbian and gay adults, age 65 and older, perceive assisted living and nursing homes as residences and as places to provide their social, care, and health needs. We intend to also explore how “family” is defined and used in everyday life.
These studies and others like them will not only increase knowledge of current and future needs of LGBT older adults but most importantly will have a positive impact on their lives through changes in policy and provision of care. Both studies are expected to last approximately four years once funding is secured. Look for updates and additional information in a future issue of Gay Life.