Researchers Turn Focus to LGBT Seniors
In terms of academic research, LGBT seniors largely remain in the closet. Only a few studies have attempted to shed light on the needs of aging LGBT adults.
Experts in the field of gerontology point to several factors behind the lack of scientific data on this age group. LGBT people were not considered part of the senior population, they said, so questions about sexual orientation or gender identity weren't asked.
The onslaught of AIDS in the 1980s not only devastated a generation of gay and bisexual men, it also diverted the LGBT community's attention and scarce research funding toward combating the deadly disease.
"The money for it simply dried up in the 1990s and didn't come back until the end of that decade," said Marcy Adelman, Ph.D., who has focused on LGBT aging since the 1970s. "The community wasn't in a position to focus on aging when struggling so hard to keep everybody alive. I don't think Washington was particularly friendly to LGBT aging research."
Now, due to treatment advances, people with HIV are living well past their 50s. They are aging alongside other LGBT baby boomers, many of whom have been out of the closet for decades and are demanding services as they enter retirement age.
The result is an increased attention on studying LGBT seniors and addressing their concerns. Entities from the National Institutes of Health to AARP have funneled resources toward LGBT adults.
"We are finally starting to talk about these issues from a research position," said Brian de Vries, a gay man who is a professor of gerontology at San Francisco State University. "AIDS happened and researchers were just siphoned away and turned their attention to the experiences of people living with, and at that time dying from, HIV. I think it has only been in the last 10 years or so that we have found our way back to an appreciation of aging within the LGBT community."
He recalled attending a lecture in the mid 1980s about gay men and aging where an audience member asked if "those terms are mutually incompatible 'gay' and 'aging.' It really struck me that somebody would make a comment like that.
"So many of us were dying during that time, so the idea of aging seemed luxurious," he added. "Given what the circumstances were, people thought it was almost not possible. I think that is part of the issue for why we were late to the game."
Early last decade de Vries, 56, helped establish and co-chaired Rainbow Research, an LGBT interest group within the Gerontological Society of America. He also took part in 2006 and 2010 in a Met Life study focused on LGBT seniors.
Called "Still Out, Still Aging," "it was one of the only national representative studies of LGBT boomers," said de Vries.
It first looked at the needs of 1,000 LGBT baby boomers. A follow-up study then compared 1,200 LGBT boomers against 1,200 from the general population.
"It was one of the very few studies that allowed us to compare LGBT people with heterosexuals," de Vries said.
One of the lead authors of the Met Life study, and a co-founder of the Rainbow Research group, was Karen I. Fredriksen-Goldsen, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Washington and director of the Institute for Multigenerational Health.
Fredriksen-Goldsen, 55, an out lesbian, also received funding in 2009 from the NIH and the National Institute on Aging to conduct a national survey on the needs of LGBT seniors. More than 2,500 LGBT adults ranging in age from 50 to 95 took part.
The findings were published in 2010, and that same year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services funded the creation of the National Resource Center on LGBT Aging.
As for why there had been relatively little LGBT aging research done in the past, Fredriksen-Goldsen said, "A lot of it has been just very rampant invisibility colliding with the stereotype that LGBT people aren't seniors."
Her latest project is to study the specific needs of LGBT seniors in San Francisco. As the B.A.R. noted in October, the recently formed LGBT Aging Policy Task Force hired her to oversee the creation of an online survey and analyze the data. A variety of government and private sources have provided $60,000 to fund the work, and an advisory committee of local leaders is assisting with it.
"I am really excited to be working with the city of San Francisco and excited to move the research forward and identify what some of the needs are for some of the most under-represented groups in our community," she said.
Her first task was to study the responses from 295 San Francisco residents who took part in the federally funded Caring and Aging with Pride research project. She was in San Francisco last week to present her findings, and a report based on her work can be downloaded from the task force's website at http://www.sf-hrc.org/index.aspx?page=201 .
Most of the respondents, 85 percent, were white, and 70 percent were male. The majority lived alone, didn't have children, and were renters.
The results are an "initial snapshot," and more information is needed on LGBT seniors of color and transgender people, said Fredriksen-Goldsen.
The task force plans to put particular focus on reaching LGBT adults in those communities when it launches the online survey, which will be in English, Spanish, and Chinese, in late February. It has asked for final analysis by July.
"I haven't had an opportunity before to work as closely and go into the kind of depth as we are going to go in San Francisco," said Fredriksen-Goldsen. "We really want to understand what is happening within very specific communities among LGBT adults."