Let me paint you a picture. Jane is a transgender woman. For years she hid her true identity from her friends and family because she felt forced to present herself as male. Hiding herself broke her spirit and caused her to suffer from severe depression. She always felt uncomfortable in her skin, in her clothes, interacting with others. But finally, when she was 67-years-old, she came out as the woman that she had always known herself to be. In coming out, she felt freedom and, more importantly, comfort. She could act and dress in ways that felt true to her core identity.
Fast forward 8 years to when Jane is 75-years-old. At this point her health is beginning to decline and she recognizes that she’ll eventually have to move to a nursing home to receive professional care. But Jane wonders: Will the nursing home staff respect her identity? Will they call her by her chosen name and her proper pronouns? What if the other residents harass her- will the staff intervene? After finally feeling the freedom of living as her true self, Jane can’t imagine being forced back into the closet. But she also can’t imagine spending her final years battling constant abuse.
This is a position that all too many LGBTQ elders find themselves in. For many LGBTQ elders, coming out and living openly was a great challenge, and the last thing that they want to do is go back into hiding. But living as an out member of the LGBTQ community within a nursing home or senior living facility can render elders vulnerable to abuse from other residents and staff members.
Lambda Legal, a legal organization committed to achieving LGBTQ equality, recently filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a lesbian elder, Marsha Wetzel, who faced discrimination, harassment, and violence due to her sexual orientation while living in a senior housing facility. You can hear Marsha’s story in her own words here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d8qd7-pq0E8. Unfortunately, her story is reflective of the stories of many other elders.
When elders face harassment and violence due to their sexual orientation or gender identity while in a nursing home or senior living facility, that is not just poor treatment. It is elder abuse. When staff members fail to stop harassing behavior from occurring, that is also elder abuse. It is important that we don’t view these incidents as isolated because they are part of a larger pattern of abuse faced by LGBTQ elders.
In a small study of LGB elders, 65% reported experiencing some form of abuse related to their sexual orientation. Another study showed that 80% of transgender elders have experienced verbal and/or emotional abuse, and 42% have experienced physical violence. LGBTQ elders tend to be more vulnerable to abuse because they are afraid that the reporting process will lead to further discrimination or “outing” if they are closeted. Many LGBTQ elders have been discriminated against or harassed by authorities in the past, and therefore have distrust of the system. Additionally, some elders suffer from internalized homophobia and may feel the abuse they experience is deserved.
It is essential that nursing homes and senior living facilities work to create safer environments for LGBTQ elders, where abusive behavior is strictly prohibited and staff members immediately and appropriately intervene should it occur. Many LGBTQ elders have lived hugely difficult lives. They deserve to age in peace.
 Research Brief: Mistreatment of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Elders, National Center on Elder Abuse, Retrieved from https://ncea.acl.gov/resources/docs/Mistreatment-LGBT-NCEA-2013.pdf.