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Study: LGBT Ethnic Elders See More Poverty, Isolation, Bias

Posted: Apr 05, 2012

Photo from the report “Disparities and Resilience among Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Older Adults.”

SACRAMENTO, Calif.--Ricardo Urrieta, 61, claims to face discrimination times four: "I am old, I'm Latino, I'm gay and I have HIV," he declared. "This is the end for many people.”

Urrieta 's life has not been easy in recent months. And his struggles reflect findings or a recent national study of older lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) seniors, including significant samples of ethnic elders.

"I was a nurse, but one day I could not continue working. I fell down all the time in the hospital because a disk in my back protruded. The doctor told me I could no longer work," he recalled.

Disabled and Homeless

While Urrieta waited for his disability-insurance checks to start arriving, everything became complicated. With no income and no family, he had to leave his apartment in Los Angeles.

"I spent a week in my car, I became homeless on Skid Row. I had to join the queue for a ticket to get me a sandwich and a soda."

Eventually he got a room in a hotel for homeless people. "It did not even have windows," he said.

After much knocking on doors, Urrieta was able to rent an apartment for low-income people and began receiving his disability checks, of $1,200 a month.

"Of that money, $550 is for rent, but at least I have a roof over my head and enough left for food."

Urrieta 's story is not an isolated case.

Researchers at the University of Washington School of Social Work, in Seattle, found in the first nationwide LGBT study on aging and health. It shows that LGBT seniors experience higher rates of disability, physical and mental anguish, as well lack of access to services than the non-LGBT population in the United States.

According to the report, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute on Aging, the number of LGBT older adults in the U.S. will double to more than 4 million by 2030.

The 2011 study, which the researchers presented at the annual meeting of the Gerontological Society of America, included 2,560 people between ages 50 and 95.One out of eight participants in the study was from ethnic or racial minorities.

80 Percent Victimized

The study reveals that 80 percent of LGBT seniors had been victimized at least once during their lifetimes, including verbal and physical assaults, threats of physical violence and being “outed,” and having their property damaged.

Study participants said their most common needs were transportation, legal services, support groups and senior housing.

Urrieta noted, "In many places I had to be 62 before I could get help with an affordable place to live.” He noted that some nonprofits working with the LGBT community in Los Angeles told him there were exceedingly very long waiting lists to get help with subsidized affordable housing.

Another finding was that Hispanic and Native American LGBT older adults reported lower levels of general mental health, higher rates of depression, and more stress than whites. The report adds, “The likelihood of neglect for Hispanic and African American LGBT older adults is also greater.”

Urrieta continued, "That's why there is so much stress and suicide among us. I had panic attacks when I slept on the street. I couldn’t sleep because I did not know whether I would have food the next day.”

Even worse, he said, “I suffered discrimination and humiliation for being Latino. It’s hard enough to be gay on Skid Row. They threw the keys at me at the hotel where I was given a room. I ended up taking antidepressants,” he said.

Some of the most important findings of University of Washington study showed that elders in low-income LGBT seniors confront unique circumstances: fear of discrimination, lack of support groups and no children to help them.

In fact, the report found, “Hispanic and Native American LGBT older adults in the project are more likely to experience victimization than white LGBT older adults, while Asian/Pacific Islanders report higher levels of internalized stigma.”

Compounding those problems for Latino LGBT seniors, says the report, is that they also have lower levels of social support than their white counterparts. Much research, according to the study has linked social isolation among seniors like Urrieta to poor physical and social health, chronic illnesses and premature death.

In addition, the study reports, four out of 10 LGBT elders have considered suicide.
The researchers also found that the study participants had greater rates of disability, depression and loneliness and increased likeliness to smoke and binge-drink compared with heterosexuals of similar ages.

"Life for us, as older people, is more difficult than for heterosexuals. They will always have a family member, or even an ex-wife to give them a hand. We do not have even that. All my friends are dead," Urrieta said sadly.

High Rate of Health Disparities

"High rates of health disparities among LGBT elders are a great public health concern and a reflection of the hardships they face," said Karen Frederick-Goldsen, who led the study and directs the University of Washington’s Institute of Multigenerational Health.

For instance, one in five respondents to the study said they have not told their doctors about their sexual orientation for fear of being rejected or receiving inadequate medical care.

Lack of openness about sexuality “prevents discussions about sexual health, risk of breast or prostate cancer, hepatitis, HIV risk, hormone therapy or other risk factors,” Fredriksen-Goldsen said.

"The fear of coming out of the closet in front of medical staff puts them in a vulnerable situation. It can be devastating to encounter someone at that level who discriminates against them," said Sheila Moore, acting director of the Gay and Lesbian Center of Los Angeles. She added, "Many lesbians prefer to go to a doctor who is a woman because they feel safer."

As part of its “Call to Action,” the study recommends new investment in cultural competency training on LGBT issues for health care and human services professionals, incorporating diversity in age, gender identity, ethnicity, race and other concerns.

The study also calls for stronger efforts to protect the safety and security of LGBT older adults through interventions to combat prejudice and discrimination. Authorities, states the report, should “fully prosecute hate crimes based on sexual orientation, gender identity and age.”

Araceli Martinez wrote this article as part of the aging research fellowship for journalists from the MetLife Foundation, a project of the Gerontology Society of America and New America Media. The article is translated from Spanish and adapted from an earlier version.

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