Health care is at the top of the list of concerns for everyone as they age; however, if you happen to be a member of the LGBT community, health care concerns take on a heightened importance as you near your retirement years. Members of the LGBT community have all the same concerns regarding health care for seniors as other older Americans do in addition to worrying about whether health care providers will understand the rights and needs of older lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender patients. In North Carolina, a law clinic as Wake Forest University is trying to reach out to providers to bridge the gap and inform them of those rights and needs on behalf of older LGBT patients.
As we age, the likelihood that we will need increased medical services and/or long-term care increases dramatically for all of us. For member of the older LGBT community, the likely need for long-term care or increased health care services brings with it a set of additional questions and concerns unique to the community. For example, will a partner be considered “next of kin” for purposes of making health care decisions? Will insurance, that would be available to a spouse, be available to my partner? Will a partner even be allowed to visit if I’m hospitalized? Should I tell my health care providers about my sexual orientation? Something as simple as which box to check in a doctor’s office when filling out an intake form can be frustrating if the options listed are: ‘Married,’ ‘Single,’ ‘Widowed,’ ‘Divorced.’
Currently, there are an estimated three million “older” members of the LGBT community. “Older” is defined as over the age of 55. According to a 2014 SAGE report, that number is projected to double in the next two decades as the baby-boom generation continues to reach retirement age. SAGE is the nation’s oldest and largest provider of services for members of the older LGBT community.
Getting older often brings with it an increased sense of vulnerability which can be heightened for members of the LGBT community. According to experts, such as Jennifer Harriss, an ombudsman for the Piedmont Triad Regional Council Area Agency on Aging, members of the LGBT community – at least until recently – were less likely to have children and tended to have a smaller circle of support, making them more likely to grow old alone. They are more likely, however, to suffer from substance abuse and mental illness as a result of the history of discrimination and stigma. Studies have found that LGBT people are two and a half times more likely to experience depression.
Older LGBT members are also less likely to disclose their sexual preference which can prevent them from receiving optimum health care. In fact, in a 2014 Harris poll performed for the national SAGE umbrella organization, forty percent of LGBT people in their 60s and 70s responded that they did not disclose sexual orientation to their physicians. This inherent fear of health care providers stems from the fact that many of them grew up during a time when homosexuality was still considered a mental illness. The problem is clear — for older members of the LGBT community, growing old can be terrifying.
Fortunately, there are people who want to help remove the fear many older LGBT members have of the health care system by educating providers of the rights and needs of the community. Law students and professors at Wake Forest University’s Elder Law Clinic have been addressing these LGBT seniors’ growing health needs. Last August, the clinic received a $2,500 grant from the North Carolina Society of Healthcare Attorneys to fund community outreach programs on LGBT health-care rights. Since then, medical providers and community members attending three outreach events learned about federal laws that recognize domestic partners as hospital visitors and end-of-life care decision makers, said Kate Mewhinney, a professor at the Wake Forest Elder Law Clinic.
The clinic has partnered with aging service providers and medical centers, along with community programs, Mewhinney said. The joint effort clinic has raised awareness about health-related challenges older LGBT people face, such as lack of health insurance, high rates of poverty, and the difficult transition into nursing homes.
If you are a member of the older LGBT community and you believe your rights have been violated by a health care provider or facility, you should consult with an experienced North Carolina elder law attorney in your area to discuss your legal options.
If you have additional questions about health care issues for older LGBT members in the State of North Carolina contact the experienced elder law attorneys at The Law Offices of Cheryl David by calling 336-547-9999 to schedule an appointment.