Spotlight Exclusives

LGBTQ Seniors Struggle to Overcome Economic Hardships

Stell Simonton Stell Simonton, posted on

On a warm day in August 2019 in the small mountain town of Clayton, Ga., the Rural America Pride Festival was in full swing. More than a dozen booths offered food, crafts, and information at a pavilion next to the Rabun County Civic Center.

A police car sat on the hill behind the library overlooking the festival, but thankfully, little protection was needed; a lone protestor had stood there with a sign earlier in the day.

At one booth, Dana Allgary Brock, 50, sold signs she created with wood-burning tools.

She once worked as a waitress at the Waffle House in Clayton, but nearly lost her job when a customer yelled an anti-gay slur and she yelled back. Now she prefers to be self-employed.

At another table, Sharon Penner, who is in her 50s, sold jewelry. She, too, makes a living as an independent artisan.

Both are settled here and can expect to grow old in the shade of the North Georgia mountains.

Aging, however, is not a cakewalk for LGBTQ adults, who are more likely than others to experience economic insecurity in old age, have fewer family supports and face unhelpful or incompetent healthcare providers. They have unique needs that must be addressed, some researchers are saying, especially since their numbers will double by 2030.

In the United States, 1.1 million LGBTQ adults are age 65 or older, according to estimates in the report, Understanding Issues Facing LGBT Older Adults. About 2.7 million are age 50 or older, according to the report from the research organization MAP and the advocacy group SAGE (Advocacy & Services for LGBT Elders).

Contrary to stereotype, many live in small-towns or rural areas, according to the report. The challenges they face are amplified in rural settings — although LGBTQ seniors may also often find support in tight-knit small-town communities.

The problem with healthcare

Marc Souza, 50, moved to the nearby small town of Blairsville, Ga., not far from Clayton, to be with his mother, who retired there.

“Blairsville does have a certain magic to it,” he said, an unpretentious place with a lot of natural beauty. But he’s keeping his home in Chicago.

Souza is HIV-positive and has more trust in his Chicago doctors. He’s concerned that doctors in rural areas “don’t prioritize continuing education as much as in urban areas,” he said.

At the Pride Festival, he sat at a booth with Penny Connell and Sandy Lane, leaders of the first PFLAG organization in Blairsville, an organization devoted to supporting LGBTQ persons as well as their friends and family. Connell and Lane too were concerned about health care options. In rural areas, the choice of providers is fewer, they said.

“Not all doctors will accept LGBT patients,” Connell said.

Problems also arise when older gay people need assisted living, Lane said.

“You’ve got to go back in the closet to get care,” Connell said. “Most everyone lies” when they go to an assisted living center, she said.

“It’s important to recognize that LGBT elders have unique health needs,” said Naomi Goldberg, director of policy for MAP. “They need people who understand what modern transgender health care looks like,” she said, as well as HIV care.

Equally important is whether providers are affirming and welcoming so patients feel comfortable sharing their sexual orientation, Goldberg said.

“If you don’t feel comfortable [to reveal information] how does that impact the care you get?” she asked.

Many states lack laws that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, meaning that an assisted living facility could possibly turn away a same-sex couple, she said.

Residents in senior care facilities are highly dependent on facility staff. “If they don’t like you because you are gay, how will they treat you when you are dependent on them,” Goldberg asked.

Economic Hardship

The Rural America Pride Festival was created to encourage inclusiveness in rural America. At the festival, Penner stood proudly at her jewelry display table, wearing rainbow stickers on her shirt. But in her regular business dealings, she doesn’t volunteer information about her sexual orientation.

“I’m afraid it would hurt my business,” she said.

Discrimination affects LGBTQ adults where they work — and it hurts their pocketbooks.

In one study cited by the MAP and SAGE report on LGBTQ elders, 18 percent of LGBTQ respondents reported being fired because of sexual orientation or gender identity. Twenty-seven percent said they were not hired for the same reason, and 26 percent said they were passed over for promotion.

Only 20 states prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and another two states prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation alone, the report said.

Over a lifetime, disparities in earnings, jobs, and the chance to build savings leave more LGBT adults impoverished. These factors impact their ability to advance and their ability to save for retirement, Goldberg said.

Almost one-third of LGBTQ adults aged 65 or older have an income at or below 200 percent of the poverty line, according to the MAP and SAGE report, compared with one-fourth of non-LGBTQ adults 65 and older. Forty percent of LGBTQ elders 80 and over are at or below 200 percent of the poverty level, the report said.

Before same-sex marriage became legal in 2015, same-sex partners could not get each other’s Social Security or employment benefits. They could not designate a partner to receive a pension after death.

“I think a lot about older seniors who were already retired and weren’t able to inherit or rollover a 401k,” Goldberg said. Some may have been kicked out of a home after their partner died or not been able to access their partner’s savings, she said.

Family and Community Support

As people age, they need more assistance in their daily lives. And the more connected older people are, the greater their well-being.

In the United States, most of that support comes from family members. But when LGBTQ elders were young, enormous stigmas and homophobia existed and many were rejected by their families. Having a same-sex partner was literally illegal in some places. In many cases, family ties weakened but were replaced by friendship circles.

“LGBT adults are far less likely to have children,” Goldberg said. “They’re more likely to rely on a family of choice or a friend network.”

While these ties are strong, friends don’t have the legal recognition to make health decisions for each other or take time from work for caregiving, the report said.

And friend groups are often members of the same generation, all aging together.

As a result, older LGBTQ adults are more likely to lack support and to experience isolation.

Community supports such as senior centers are not necessarily welcoming and inclusive.

“People may feel like they have to go back in the closet” to access communal meals or recreational activities at senior centers, Goldberg said.

Creating Solutions

Just outside Clayton, Becky Hoover, 67, and Paula Jones, 66, have been operating their Parker Ranch bed-and-breakfast for nearly seven years. The couple, who are married, are among a community of people who’ve moved to the mountains in recent years from more urban areas. They make being neighborly a priority through events such as a local first Thursday potluck.

Now Hoover and Jones are building 10 cottages on about half of the 14 acres they own. Family and friends, including Hoover’s sister, plan to retire there.

“None of us is going to want to go into a nursing home …. [And most] don’t have children,” she said.

The cottages will form a supportive neighborhood of friends and relatives — some gay, some not — as they get older.

Community-building efforts are going on across the nation to benefit LGBTQ seniors. For example, the Pride Center of the Capital Region near In Albany, N.Y., hosts a monthly potluck and has created a neighbor network linking older and younger members for mutual assistance.

SAGE developed SAGE Table, a program of dinners across the country to encourage connection and combat isolation.

Legislative advocacy is also going on. MAP and other groups urge the passage of laws preventing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Goldberg said that staff who provide senior services — from physicians to assisted living facilities to senior centers — need to work on diversity and inclusion. They need to ground this work in a better understanding of who LGBTQ adults are, she said. More research is needed to understand what best practices look like, she said.

And some organizations are pushing to have LGBT seniors designated as a “population of special need” in the Older Americans Act, which would open up more federal funding for services.

In the meantime, PFLAG of Blairsville, the Rural America Pride Festival and the Parker Ranch are among groups drawing people together and building a greater sense of community that will benefit LGBTQ adults as they age.

Stell Simonton is an Atlanta journalist. Her work has appeared the Christian Science Monitor, Washington Post and Youth Today, among others.

This article is the part of the “Poverty Next Door” series published in partnership with Microsoft News.

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