Understanding the Unique Challenges and Needs of Aging LGBT Adults — Part 2

This is the second part of a two-part article. If you have not read Part One yet, we recommend doing so first clicking here.

Bullying in nursing homes is already on the level of a national crisis; enough so that the topic warrants an article of its own. But for openly LGBTQ+ people, it’s even more insidious — and often violent.

A lawsuit submitted by Lambda Legal on behalf of Marsha Wetzel against her assisted living community, which failed to protect her on a systemic level, shows just how bad it can be. For 16 months, despite dozens of complaints to administrators, Wetzel — a 70-year-old lesbian woman — was subjected to cruelty and violence by her fellow residents. Homophobic slurs were commonplace, and she often found herself targeted by the same people.

One man, a former police officer named Bob, rammed her scooter with his walker “hard enough to tip her chair and knock her off the [wheelchair] ramp,” and in a later incident told her that her partner Judy “died to get away from [her].” The harassment from Bob was so frequent and severe, that she soon felt she had no choice but to eat alone in her room, do her laundry in the middle of the night, and avoid the floor he lived on.

Sometime later, Wetzel was attacked in the mailroom — hit over the head from behind by an unknown assailant. “She went back to her room and cried but did not report the injury to staff that day because she did not think they would believe her.”

The reason she thought that was because, as she learned after dozens of complaints, the administrators never did. She was spit on by residents, assaulted in the elevator, and told that she would burn in hell — and each time she complained she was either accused of lying or told not to worry about it.  Eventually, the staff began to retaliate against her themselves, falsely accusing her of smoking in her room (an evictable offense), making fun of her because no one visited her during the Holidays, and at one point slapping her across the face.

Marsha Wetzel’s experience is not unique. It’s something that the vast majority of LGBTQ+ older adults have had to deal with — if not presently, then throughout the past. Wrote Tara Bahrampour, “Older lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, including those among the first to come out as a political and social force, are increasingly apprehensive about encountering discrimination as they grow older and more dependent on strangers for care.” (Washington Post)

This apprehension only highlights why it’s so vital for caregivers to approach these situations with understanding and belief; their fear doesn’t exist without reason.

Compared to their cisgender1  and heterosexual counterparts, LGBTQ+ older adults are already at a much greater risk of physical and mental illness. So stark is this health disparity that it’s been identified as one of the greatest concerns in public health. Says Karen Fredriksen-Goldsen, who led the pioneering 2011 study, “The health disparities reflect the historical and social context of their lives, and the serious adversity they have encountered can jeopardize their health and willingness to seek services in old age.”

In fact, 80% of respondents indicated that they’d been victimized “at least once in their lifetimes,” and nearly 40% had considered suicide at some point.

On top of the above health concerns and decreased care-seeking, LGBTQ+ seniors also have to contend with the following challenges that their peers do not:

  • Increased social isolation and loneliness
  • Decreased social support (less likely to be married or have children)
  • Greater rates of poverty (often due to a difficulty in finding employment)
  • Poorer nutrition
  • Increased likeliness to smoke and binge-drink
  • Higher rates of depression and anxiety
  • For older lesbians and bisexual women, an elevated risk of cardiovascular disease and obesity, and a decreased likelihood of having a mammogram
  • Higher rates of chronic conditions (including low back pain, neck pain, and a weakened immune system)
  • Heightened rates of stroke, heart attack, asthma, and arthritis
  • Premature mortality

Much of these differences were not known until recent years, which only serves as a reminder that there’s a need to develop prevention and intervention strategies so that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer-identified seniors and baby boomers can receive the healthcare and compassion they deserve.

In the coming years, you will find more and more LGBTQ+ elders in your care. Their differing needs, and also the need to be seen on a human level — with empathy, kindness, and an inclusion — means that we must build a foundation of understanding within the assisted living community. Across the country, facilities have begun to take note. Seminars are being held with residents and staff to reduce the rampant bullying taking place within their walls, and educational courses are available to teach nurse and caregivers how to interact with a community of seniors who have, for too long, remained invisible. At Assisted Living Education, we offer LGBT training and we are more than ready to shine a light on all the ways we can help make their lives better.  Please share with us your experience and feedback.

Assisted Living Education is the leading provider of RCFE certification classes, licensing, products and services for assisted living. Our teachers are industry professionals with many years of experience that are engaging, entertaining and highly informative.

About Assisted Living Education
Assisted Living Education has been operating in and improving the growing senior care industry for over 15 years. Founded by certified RCFE administrators, Jane Van Dyke-Perez and Bill Perez, we have licensed more than 1,100 assisted living facilities and built close relationships with the California Department of Social Services, assisted living managers, owners and industry professionals. As senior living care educators ourselves, we strive to contribute our knowledge and skills to continually improve senior care and the satisfaction of those working in the industry.
  1. Cisgender, adj : denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex. Considered the preferable term to describe non-trans folks, as the common alternative “gender- normative” reinforces a prejudicial normal/not normal binary.