LGBT seniors face bias in care homes

Queens Pride Parade in Queens in 2018. Wikimedia Commons

There are a lot of factors seniors take into consideration when looking for a care facility: cost, proximity to family, food, religious services. But seniors who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender face additional obstacles, namely figuring out if a home is safe for them to live as their authentic selves.

“Our society is an ageist society that doesn’t center [on] the needs of older adults. There aren’t many visible public figures who are LGBT and older,” said Tim R. Johnston, senior director of national projects at the New York-based Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE).

Johnston said that many people don’t think that older LGBT people exist, and so there isn’t a reason for nursing homes and care facilities to be LGBT friendly. But there are at least 1.1 million LGBT seniors in the United States, according to, and nearly half of them face discrimination when looking for a care facility.

These discriminatory practices can include being charged more for rent, same-sex partners being denied the same rights as straight couples, being denied hormone treatments and harassment from staff and other residents.

In 2014, Marsha Wetzel, 70, moved into Glen St. Andrew Living Community, in Niles, Ill., after her partner died. She remained open about her sexuality and was physically and verbally assaulted by other residents. When she reported the incidents to the staff, they began to isolate and discriminate against her.

In 2016, she filed a lawsuit, which was originally dismissed by U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit later ruled that landlords “are required under federal law to stop tenants from harassing and
discriminating against other tenants.”

But that doesn’t mean discrimination doesn’t happen.

There have also been several similar cases where same-sex couples have denied the same rights as heterosexual couples while in care facilities, said Sam McClure, director of the LGBT Health Resource Center at Chase Brexton Healthcare, in Baltimore.

McClure added that many LGBT seniors don’t want to or can’t live in LGBT-exclusive homes. Some may want to continue being a part of faith communities or have dementia or other illnesses that require specialized care.

“There’s a variety of factors [at play], many of them economic,” McClure said. “One of the unfortunate realities of aging is that unexpected things happen. We don’t always plan what we are going to need as an aging person.”

Even if LGBT-exclusive homes could offer these resources, she said, other homes should be LGBT-friendly. Many LGBT seniors need to go into homes as they often do not have a family or support system to take care of them.

Social isolation is a major problem for all aging people and it’s more severe for LGBT people, McClure said. LGBT seniors are usually dependent on each other, creating their own “families of choice,” but they do not have the same legal recognition when it comes to biological families.

To help combat these issues, many LGBT organizations, including SAGE, offer certification courses for care facilities so LGBT seniors can find a place where they’ll be safe. SAGE publishes the names of certified homes in its online database.

The training includes “having a non-discrimination policy, a residents’ rights document that outlines community norms [and] explicitly mentions them being welcoming,” Johnston said.
The certification programming also gives staff training to run LGBT-friendly events like attending pride celebrations, hosting support groups and having discussions about LGBT media, the latter of which can involve residents from outside the community.

The Hebrew Home of Greater Washington is getting its SAGE certification, according to Executive Director Bruce J. Lederman. WJW

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Twitter: @SamScoopCooper

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