BeckySharper brought my attention to a brief New York Times story about health disparities in aging gay, lesbian, and bisexual communities. The data are drawn from a sample of 1,052 self-identified gay, lesbian and bisexual Californians between the ages of 50 and 70 who responded to California Health Interview Surveys conducted in 2003, 2005 and 2007 and the research brief is available online (PDF). The summary from the brief itself reads:
Research on the health of lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) adults generally overlooks the chronic conditions that are the most common health concerns of older adults. This brief presents unique population-level data on aging LGB adults (ages 50-70) documenting that they have higher rates of several serious chronic physical and mental health conditions compared to similar heterosexual adults. Although access to care appears similar for aging LGB and heterosexual adults, aging LGB adults generally have higher levels of mental health services use and lesbian/bisexual women report greater delays in getting needed care. These data indicate a need for general health care and aging services to develop programs targeted to the specific needs of aging LGB adults, and for LGB-specific programs to increase attention to the chronic conditions that are common among all older adults.
I can’t say there is anything terribly startling about the data presented. The sample is relatively small, and from what I understand it was culled from a study that was not designed specifically to examine the needs of queer elders. The brief does not provide details concerning what questions were asked in the telephone survey and how the survey methods themselves might skew the information presented in one fashion or another. The data suggest more or less what could be predicted about the elderly in any marginalized population: that in many ways, they are more vulnerable than their non-marginalized peers when it comes to physical and mental health needs.
In several instances, I would have been curious to see the “GLB” data not only compared to the data for straight men and women, but also internally. It would have been particularly interesting to see some of the data broken down by gender, which was done with some but not all data. For example, the data show that gay, lesbian and bisexual study participants were overall more likely to be highly educated and less likely to be “low income” (living on an income below 200% of the federal poverty line) than their straight counterparts. However, given that women are much more likely than men to be low income in their elder years, I would be surprised if ageing lesbians diverge from their gay male counterparts in this particular statistic.
On the other hand, the study points out that lesbian elders are much more likely than their gay male counterparts to be living with others as they age, including a higher chance of being partnered (as do straight women when compared to straight men). The study offers no explanation for the gender differences here, but Becky points out that gay male elders are extremely likely to have lost a significant number of friends as well as one or more intimate partners to the AIDS epidemic.
On the other side, I would suggest that there are a number of possible cultural reasons why lesbian women might be less likely to live alone. Lesbian and bi women now between the ages of 50 and 70 came of age in an era during with many women who later found same-sex partners married men and had children prior to coming out (often through their involvement in the Women’s Movement of the late 1960s and 70s). My undergraduate research, studying a predominantly lesbian feminist organization that existed in West Michigan during the 1970s, brought me in contact with a number of women who currently identify as lesbian or bisexual but who were, during the 1960s and early 70s, married with small children. They often brought their children with them into same-sex relationships and continue to be involved parents and grandparents as they grow older. While I don’t know the statistics concerning gay men of the same generation, I would suspect that fewer gay men married, had children, or were the primary caregivers of children, during the 1970s. Therefore, lesbian women may be more likely to have biological family connections to support them in their elder years.
The other cultural phenomenon that I believe might contribute to elder lesbians well-being is the legacy of lesbian communities. While the culture of lesbian separatism has caused a substantial number of problems in the queer and feminist communities since the 70s, I’d argue that in this instance it may actually end up increasing queer women’s chances of having a community of people around them with whom to grow old. In fact, the New York Times profiled one such community back in 2009. At the time, one of my friends who lives on women-only land in Missouri wrote a guest post on my blog responding to the NYT piece and meditating on her own experience on womyn’s land.
Whatever your feeling about lesbian separatism and women-only land, or women-only communities, the fact is that intentional communities can provide enduring and stable relationship for folks who might otherwise be facing their elder years alone.
I actually think this brief is a reminder for us to fight against two tendencies in our society that are harmful for people of all ages and identities: 1) the social isolation of those not in “traditional” married-with-children relationships, and 2) the extreme age-based, ableist stratification of our culture, which hampers those in need of more care (children and the elderly, among other groups) by separating them out from those who are more self-sufficient. Moving forward, I would argue that the best way to ensure that the most vulnerable members of our society are getting the care they need is to consciously integrate them into mixed-age settings. As with childcare, we need to start thinking of eldercare as a social responsibility that all of us share, not a specialized professional vocation or the sole responsibility of those biologically related to the ageing folks in question.