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Gays, lesbians face new challenges as seniors

A growing number of seniors fear discrimination because of their sexual orientation. (AP)

Baby boomers are starting to crowd into the nation’s nursing homes and assisted living communities. A growing number of those seniors fear discrimination because of their sexual orientation.

By 2030, it’s estimated that one in five of us will be 65 years old, or older. Jackson Holtz, with the S.E.I.U. health care union in Seattle, says by then, an estimated 111,000 seniors in Washington will identify as gay or lesbian. “This is the first generation of openly gay and lesbian and transgender and queer people who will be aging in an open way.”

In Washington state, it’s illegal to discriminate against people based on gender identity.

“That’s the law, it doesn’t mean that things have changed overnight,” said Anna Schlecht, an advocate for the LGBT community. She said denial of benefits is a real issue.

“We have been denied access to our partners’ social security, the pensions, because of the laws. Even though in Washington state, it’s now legal to marry, that’s not the law of the land,” said Schlecht.

A summit of caregivers, advocates and experts in Seattle Tuesday focused on the issues of providing for an aging LGBT community. Schlecht says some seniors are particularly vulnerable.

“They’re vulnerable as gay people, vulnerable as transgender and they’re vulnerable as elders who are depending on caregivers and it can be a scary thing to come out.”

Making gay seniors feel safe can be as simple as the way a caregiver phrases a comment.

“The fixation on ‘where’s your husband, where’s your wife’ can be very off-putting for elders,” said Schlecht.

David Haack is marketing a new senior community in Lynnwood branded as LGBT friendly. “What we did in that scenario is we made the language just very universal so the language is ‘your partner,’ ‘your significant other,’ ‘your family of choice’ rather than saying ‘son,’ ‘daughter.'”

Today, there’s health care reform and marriage equality in Washington, but that doesn’t solve all the concerns of the LGBT community.

“Because we also have to educate the people that are going to care for people in our communal settings or adult family homes or in skilled nursing settings about the company’s adherence to non-discrimination policies,” said Haack.

The concerns of most seniors are the same in the LGBT community; housing, affordable health care, and outliving their savings. But advocates say caregivers must understand some unique challenges facing gay and lesbian seniors. Some live with HIV and many suffer loneliness, with no family beyond their partners.

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