In the 60's and 70's many of the gay men and women in this country were still living in the closet, especially in rural conservative areas. The effects of Harvey Milk and the Stonewall Riots didn't reach much of America for years or decades to come. As these men and women have aged, many of them never enjoyed the freedom of expression, or current level of acceptance we do today.
How might things have played out for Harvey Milk if he, like many Americans, lived long enough to need care in a nursing home?
Current statistics would give him about a 50% chance of having dementia of some form, simply because of his age. And, since he had no children to care for him, his chances of needing nursing home care would have increased even more.
There's no way to know how Harvey's life would have played out, but what we can know for sure is that openly gay men and women of his generation are finding themselves increasingly back in the closet as nursing home and assisted living residents.
In the recent anecdotal survey "LGBT Older Adults in Long Term Care Facilities: Stories From the Field", experts from various national advocacy groups discovered some startling incidents of discrimination, harassment and emotional abuse. Nearly 300 long term care residents, family, staff, social workers, administrators and ombudsmen participated in an online survey which found:
- Only 22% said they could be open with facility staff
- 89% predict that staff would discriminate
- 43% reported 853 instances of mistreatment
- 93 respondents reported restrictions on visitors
- 24 reported denial of medical treatment
What's even more disturbing is how families are treating their loved ones as they age in nursing homes. "A woman died shortly after I started as a floor nurse in a nursing facility in 2002, and I learned her story from other staff. The woman came to the nursing home after having a stroke. She was unable to communicate. The family decided that her partner of 50+ years had no rights to their property, or to see or make decisions for the patient. The family sold the home and got a restraining order against the partner. These ladies were retired schoolteacher in their 80's and had never considered being "out." They had no legal protections in place. The partner of the patient had sever health issues herself. She would call the nursing home occasionally on the night shift to see if a kind nurse would be willing to break the rules and tell her if her partner was still alive and how she was doing. It was a sad situation. -Michelle F., Riverview, FL
The first time we come out of the closet is usually to a friend or family member. After that, we continue to come out to everyone we meet (I hope). While coming out to more and more people is changing the public's perception of who we are as gay men and women, our responsibility doesn't stop there.
As members of a minority, we MUST advocate for change. We MUST live as examples to follow. We MUST work to create more sensitive, accepting and educated institutions in this country. From Kindergarten to Hospice, it is our responsibility to see to it that the path is made easier, and the world made kinder for all those who follow.