Spotlight Exclusives

Older LGBT Adults Faced Additional Obstacles During Pandemic

Ihan H. Meyer Ihan H. Meyer, posted on

The pandemic has been a trying time for all demographics, but some groups faced particular challenges. A new study by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law finds that older LGBT adults faced daunting obstacles. The study found that one in five older LGBT adults experienced poverty during the pandemic and that LGBT older people were more likely than their straight/cisgender peers to report having anxiety and depression symptoms. One of the study’s co-authors, Ilan H.  Meyer, distinguished scholar of public policy at the Institute, spoke to Spotlight recently about the findings. The transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What prompted your interest in this specific demographic?

It’s a demographic that we don’t know enough about, meaning older people in general, but particularly within the LGBT population. National data sets that include LGBT people tend to skew younger and we really don’t have enough random samples that include older people. This Pulse study by the Census Bureau that we used for this analysis is really innovative and allowed us to divide the subjects into two groups: ages 50 through 64 and then 65 and older. As you’ve seen in the report itself, we were also able to do breakdowns on ethnic groups within that LGBT population. It’s rare to have a large enough sample to gain some insight into the issues for older LGBT adults.

And this is data from 2021?

July 2021 through August 2022

So right in the heart of the pandemic. And to simplify your findings, you found that this is a population that had particular difficulties weathering the pandemic.

Yes, but this is a population that was more vulnerable even before the pandemic in several respects. Number one, of course, is the stigma that exists in society against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. They have a history of living through stigma as children, as young adults in a society that was a lot less accepting than now; they had weathered a much more hostile environment coming into old age.

And then there’s are particular things that affect LGBT people. For one, they’re less likely to be married or cohabitating with another person who could be a support. They’re also less likely to have a sustained and good relationship with families of origins, as we would call it, biological families. Many people have been estranged and have less family support or even Social Security disability benefits that a spouse might have had. So, they came into the pandemic from a disadvantaged position.

One thing that is more positive in terms of health is that we often see that LGBT populations are more likely to engage with healthcare providers. They’re more likely to engage with preventive services. And maybe that’s in part because of the AIDS epidemic. That is one thing that we have seen in the past and continued to see in the context of COVID.

So, what were some of the areas that you found that were particularly difficult during this period for this population? I know rent rises or increased rent was one, correct?

In all the economic indicators, really. They had less income. They had less food available, more food insecurity. They had to use more methods of gaining income, such as credit cards or loans. Overall, they were more distressed economically during this period and continue to be.

And you found that this was even more pronounced among some of the ethnic and racial subgroups, correct?

A lot more pronounced. And again, this is along the line of what you would expect. White and Asian LGBT people fared a lot better than Hispanic, Black, and what we call multi-racial. For example, a third of the Hispanic and almost a third of the Black population had income below the poverty level, compared to 10% for Asian and less than 20% for Whites. Those are the disparities that we see in the American population as a whole and it is reflected in this LGBT population as well.

Was there anything in particular about this data set that surprised you?

I wasn’t exactly surprised, but we saw an increase in using mental health services, which probably is related to the increase in mental health symptoms like depression and anxiety symptoms. But we also found that many people do not get what they need in therapy services. And again, I would say it’s a surprise, but it connects with something I have found in other studies, which is that LGBT people, when it comes to certain services, prefer more LGBT-sensitive service providers. And so, I think when they say that they did not get the needed therapy, what they mean is that they were not able to identify a therapist or a care provider who specialized in LGBT care or somebody they were able to trust. We know this is a challenge for many LGBT people, but especially I would imagine for older people where you have issues of mobility and needing specialized services.

That would make sense, as we know anecdotally how difficult it was for anyone to access therapeutic mental health services — it would be even harder to find specialized services.

We know from other studies that, for example, transgender people often find they have to, in a sense, educate their providers about trans issues.

Did you find that this population had any particular issues accessing government benefits, particularly those that were provided specifically during the pandemic?

We don’t know that actually, but we do know that LGBT people are more likely to receive a SNAP benefit, which is consistent with the fact that they have more needs. And we know that accessing those benefits was difficult for many people generally, and disadvantaged populations tend to have more of this mistrust and to worry more about reaching out. But they did seem to use a lot of the aid that was offered, and we also see that they definitely took advantage of vaccinations.


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