The following is an interview with the co-chairs of the LGBT Elder Initiative (LGBTEI). I happened upon their website and have found them to be a vital resource for the aging LGBT population. They’re currently focused on the Delaware Valley/Philadelphia area, but their purpose and mission are important to all of us.
Many thanks to the folks at LGBTEI and co-chairs Terri Clark, MPH, CHES, prevention services coordinator for ActionAIDS, and Heshie Zinman, long-time community health activist.
MM: Could you give a brief overview of the LGBT Elder Initiative and its mission?
LGBTEI: We are an ad-hoc group of volunteers from the LGBT and Aging Service communities who have come together to address the needs of LGBT elders. The mission of the LGBTEI is to assure that LGBT older adults have rights and opportunities to live vibrant, creative and mutually supportive lives. The LGBTEI fosters and advocates for services and resources that are culturally competent, inclusive and responsive to the needs of LGBT elders in the Delaware Valley and beyond.
MM: How long has the organization been going and how did you get started?
The over-arching goal of the conference was to create greater dialogue among the aging services and LGBT communities with the understanding that the aging services community needed to be more LGBT sensitive and the LGBT community needed to be more aging sensitive. The outcome of the conference was the formation of the LGBT Elder Initiative Working Group. The Working Group consists of approximately 20 representatives from the community and from the organizations that attended the conference. Under the direction of the Working Group, committees have been formed to address the issues of access, advocacy, communications, cultural competency, coalition building, networking, organizational structure, resource and policy development, and social outreach.
MM: I’ve noticed – unless I’m imagining it – a heightened awareness and coverage in the media of issues faced by LGBT people as we age. Do you think that’s true to any meaningful extent, or are we still an invisible population?
Awareness of the size of the LGBT population and our specific needs is extending to all levels of government. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has signed into law a bill requiring the state to better assess the needs of the LGBT elder community. The Federal Government has also recognized that LGBT older adults face special issues. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has introduced guidance to support enforcement of rules that protect hospital patients’ right to choose their own visitors. HHS has also been conducting community forums to hear about the health needs of the LGBT Community.
Members of the LGBTEI voiced a number of issues critical to the community at one recent HHS meeting. In addition to the need for LGBT-friendly aging services, we asked that Secretary Sebelius seek the inclusion of LGBT older adults as an at-risk population in the upcoming reauthorization of the Older Americans Act. In the private sector, the Joint Commission, the organization that accredits over 19,000 health care organizations and programs in the U.S., has issued recommendations for staff training to improve understanding of, and sensitivity to, the unique cultural and lifestyle issues of LGBT people.
MM: We know who the co-chairs of the Elder Initiative are – you’re being interviewed! – but can you tell us who else is involved with the Initiative, advocates, educators, volunteers
LGBTEI: Representatives from the Philadelphia, Delaware, Montgomery and Bucks County agencies on aging all sit on the LGBTEI’s Working Group as do representatives from CARIE, the William Way Community Center, Mazzoni Center, and The Senior Law Project. Administrators, professors and students from the University of Pennsylvania, Widener University and Drexel University are active participants in the work of the EI. Also, a large and growing number of community members serve on the Working Group and on our various committees.
MM: What’s the response been like from people who use or are in need of your services? Are you gaining a presence in the community you’re serving?
MM: What’s a general age range for your demographic? When is one considered an elder?
LGBTEI: Our model includes LGBT people of all ages. While our services and resource information is targeted at the 50+ audience, we also want to impact younger LGBT people. Those of us in the baby boomer generation did not have a large number of very visible role models. It is our hope, that through the LGBTEI, we will be able to help younger generations to live long and fulfilling lives – with all opportunities open to them. We are trying to create a diverse, mutually-supportive, intergenerational coalition to dialogue about, and address the needs of, LGBT people as we age.
LGBTEI: Yes. There is a great need everywhere for resources and services for LGBT elders. Many organizations are trying to help meet those needs now. However, the need will increase rapidly as LGBT boomers age. The Population Resource Center estimates that the number of people over 65 will have doubled between the years 2000 and 2030. We think that the LGBTEI will be able to help meet those growing needs.
LGBTEI: Every day we hear from people and realize the huge job we have ahead of us. The LGBT Elder Community is critically underserved for dozens of reasons. Given that knowledge, we believe that it is most important to create safe and LGBT-friendly access to the services that are currently available. For example, over 80% of LGBT people fear having to go to a nursing home because of real or perceived discrimination. We can help make those services safer and more welcoming to LGBT seniors. On the reverse side of that issue is making sure that LGBT service organizations are safe and welcoming to older LGBT people. Finally, we want to identify health, housing, care-giving and social resources that are LGBT-friendly so that LGBT elders have easier access to services. That ease of access will help them lead happier and more fulfilling lives.
LGBTEI: We want everyone to know that there is a resource available to help meet the unique needs of LGBT elders and to help them navigate the many aging resources that are available to them. We also want service providers and health professionals to know that they have an ally that can help them understand the needs and better serve members of the LGBT Elder Community. And we want to help assure that LGBT organizations better understand and serve the needs of LGBT elders.