Saturday, May 28, 2011

LGBT Elders - Back In The Closet

If Harvey Milk were still alive, he would have just turned 81 years old on May 22.  Living in New York at the time of the Stonewall Riots (1969), Harvey was 39.  He moved to the Castro District of San Fransisco shortly after this, and became one of the country's first openly gay elected officials serving as city supervisor.  He was assassinated within the first year of taking office, however his influence on the gay rights movement continues today.

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
The sense of going back into the closet as a resident in long term care, extends even to people in assisted living.  One 71 year old anonymous participant said, "Within the next two weeks I'll be going into assisted living. Due to my financial situation, I will have to share a room with another man. The thought of going back into the closet is making me ill.  Frankly, I'm afraid of telling anyone I'm gay."

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.

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