It’s Older People’s Day in the UK on 1st October, and it seems timely to flag the particular issues affecting older LGBT people, who are an under-recognised and under-served group of individuals. Yet their numbers are growing. It is estimated that between 5-7½% of the population have a ‘non-heterosexual’ identity. This means there are between 61,000 and 122,000 ‘non-heterosexual people’ over 60 living in the UK today, and this figure is set to rise to between 881,000 and 1,763,000 by 2030. Older LGBT share many of the issues and concerns of all older people, but their ageing can be made more complicated by their sexualities, gender identities and histories (1).
According to a recent UK survey comparing over 1,000 older LGB people and 1,000 older heterosexual people (2), older LGB people are more likely to be single and to live alone, less likely to have children and are less likely to see biological family members on a regular basis. Older LGB people are also more likely to suffer from the consequences of a lifetime of minority stress (stigma and marginalisation) and as a result are more likely to drink alcohol, take drugs and smoke than older heterosexual people. They are more likely to have a history of mental health problems, and to have current concerns about their mental health, particularly depression. This can be linked to bereavement following the deaths of partners and/or close friends, which often goes unrecognised (3). Many trans people are also estranged from their families, and continue to be regarded as mentally ill under the psychiatric diagnosis of ‘gender dysphoria’ making them particularly wary of engaging with mental health services (4).
With less intergenerational support than their heterosexual peers, older LGBT are more likely to need formal social care, and at an earlier age, than older heterosexual people. Yet at the same time, the majority of older LGBT people are very worried that health and social care providers will not be able to recognise or meet their needs. Many feel they would have to hide their identities from care staff and/or fellow service users (the older people are, the more they carried the prejudices of the past, (5)). Many are worried that they will be unwillingly exposed by their own or a loved one’s dementia (6). Many are fearful that they will spend the final years lonely and isolated, estranged from loved ones, in care homes where their lives and identities are either not recognised or not valued and validated (7).
We need to ensure that all older people are recognised and respected for who they are, and that includes older LGBT people. We also need to know much more about the lives, needs and wishes of older LGBT people, and this is where the ‘Minding the Knowledge Gaps’ project comes in. This project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and is co-organized by Andrew King (PI), University of Surrey, Kathryn Almack (University of Nottingham), Yiu-Tung Suen (University of Oxford/Chinese University of Hong Kong) and Sue Westwood (Keele University). The project involves a series of six themed seminars followed by a final conference, aimed at exploring gaps in knowledge and research about LGBT ageing, and identifying ways to address those gaps. For more information, go to the ‘Minding the Knowledge Gaps’ project. A further project of interest is ‘The Last Outing’ . Based at the Sue Ryder Centre, Nottingham University, the study is exploring end of life care experiences and concerns of older LGBT people.
Both projects can be followed on Twitter: @LGBTageing and @TheLastOuting.
(1) Ward, R., et al (eds) (2013) Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Ageing: Biographical Approaches for Inclusive Care and Support, London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley.
(2) Stonewall (2011) Lesbian, Gay Bisexual People in Later Life, London: Stonewall
(3) Almack, K., et al. (2010) ‘Exploring the impact of sexual orientation on experiences and concerns about end of life care and on bereavement for lesbian, gay and bisexual elders.’ Sociology. 44(5): 908-924.
(4) Fredriksen-Goldsen, K., et al. (2013) ‘Physical and Mental Health of Transgender Older Adults: An At-Risk and Underserved Population.’ The Gerontologist doi: 10.1093/geront/gnt021First published online: March 27, 2013
(5) Valentine, G. & Macdonald, I. (2004) Understanding Prejudice London: Stonewall
(6) Price, E. (2012) ‘Gay and lesbian carers: ageing in the shadow of dementia’, Ageing & Society, 32: 516-532.
(7) Ward, R., et al (2011) Don’t look back? Improving health and social care service delivery for older LGB users, London: Equality and Human Rights Commission.