The Silver Rainbow: Societal Challenges Facing LGBTQ Seniors

August 1, 2015, Feature, by Randy Wiger

Parks and recreation agencies are in a great position to support LGBTQ seniors with thoughtful programming and open dialogue.The historic U.S. Supreme Court decision in June legalizing marriage equality in all 50 states enables LGBTQ life partners and those in long-term relationships to access the benefits of being legally married. However, Houston Mayor Annise Parker — who is an out lesbian — wrote in the Houston Chronical that for many LGBTQ seniors, the court’s ruling comes too late1. “For many LGBT Texans who cared for and nurtured their life partner in the final years of their life, marriage equality will be too late,” Parker writes. “They never had the benefit of access to their partner’s Social Security benefits or employer-sponsored pension. They faced the stunning realization that not only did they lose the love of their life; they will eventually lose the home they shared that life in, too, because of financial inequality and equal access.”

Full marriage equality in all states, coming on the heels of the 2013 Windsor decision that removed barriers to the federal government recognizing same-sex marriages in the states where it was legal, has ushered in a whole new legal and financial landscape. LGBTQ elders often have fewer support networks and resources on which to rely compared to their heterosexual peers. As is true in many circumstances, parks and recreation has a role to play in supporting this traditionally marginalized population as it acclimates to such recent societal transformations.  

LGBTQ Seniors Have Fewer Resources

Fewer LGBTQ elders have children, many are estranged from immediate and extended family, fewer are in long-term relationships, and more are in poverty from a lifetime of employment discrimination. Many gay and bisexual men saw their generation of peers decimated by the AIDS epidemic, leaving those who survived even more alone. A summary2 of a recent study3 by SAGE (the nonprofit Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Elders) found that “LGBT elders are four times less likely to be parents than older people in the country at large” and that “for LGBT older adults, a lifetime of employment discrimination and other factors has contributed to disproportionately high poverty rates.” A 2010 study4 found that “same-sex elder couples face higher poverty rates than their heterosexual peers; 9.1 percent and 4.9 percent among elder lesbian and gay couples, respectively, in contrast to 4.6 percent among elder heterosexual couples.” And for LGBTQ elders of color, the rates of poverty are even higher.5

With fewer resources and people to assist them as they age, LGBTQ seniors may rely more on public services for help, but there are unique challenges in this approach as well. Many heterosexual peers may hold negative attitudes about LGBTQ seniors’ identities, sexual orientations or gender expressions. Polls have consistently shown that people under age 30 are far more accepting of non-traditional lifestyles than people over 60. As a result, senior programs and assisted living centers may harbor an overtly homo- or transphobic social environment. Without proactive steps by staff to interrupt and counteract social biases among patrons, an LGBTQ senior may be made to feel very unwelcome and have no one to turn to for assistance, increasing their isolation.

Senior Care Facilities Lack Basic LGBTQ Competency

In too many cases, staff at senior care facilities and senior centers lack cultural competency, openly show their disapproval of LGBTQ people who rely on their services, or even abuse them. Slightly less than half of U.S. states have laws banning discrimination in public accommodations, housing and employment. Given how involved the process of finding a care facility that is a good fit socially, medically and financially can be for a particular individual, you can imagine how discouraging it is if that facility asks you to leave because you are LGBTQ. Remember, this is not illegal in more than half the country! 

No wonder the numbers of LGBTQ seniors who are going back in the closet — back to hiding who they are, back to changing pronouns in conversations, back to calling their long-term life partners their “friend” instead of their spouse — are growing. And these seniors are the same people who witnessed, and in many cases fought, long and hard to be able to live out and be proud of who they are. The travesty of the situation is agonizing.

The times are changing, but not as fast as the need is growing.

A handful of cities are expanding efforts to establish senior centers specializing in LGBTQ social activities and support. New York City partnered with SAGE  to open five such centers in 2015.

Many senior programs and service providers may not know if they are serving any LGBTQ elders, unless they both ask their clients and make their staff more knowledgeable and welcoming. Simply assuming that because you have had no complaints means you must be meeting their needs is not adequate. LGBTQ elders have spent a lifetime being trained to hide who they are, and need active acceptance on the part of staff to develop the trust that helps them let down their guard. In many cases staff members want to do their best for all clients, but lack information to understand and identify the forms that social stigma and discrimination against LGBTQ individuals might take. 

Fortunately, there is growing scholarly research  that documents details about the aging LGBTQ community, resulting in more FAQ guides that can help familiarize staff with the issues. SAGE, the Movement Advancement Project, Caring and Aging with Pride and the National Resource Center on LGBT Aging all have great resources available online. And the Director of University of Washington’s Institute for Multigenerational Health, Karen I. Fredriksen-Goldsen, is among the leading researchers studying LGBTQ people and aging, and she has edited the groundbreaking 2007 anthology “Caregiving with Pride,” that is used as a resource in an increasing number of training programs.

Expanding Senior Services in Parks and Recreation

Given how fast the landscape of acceptance for LGBTQ people has changed in just the past five years, organizing an afternoon LGBTQ Rainbow Information Fair that partners with local LGBTQ organizations and senior service providers may be a useful place for parks and recreation senior program units to start. Putting together such an event that travels to all the senior centers in your city or service area will not only help staff familiarize themselves with the issues encountered by LGBTQ elders, it likely will result in staff meetings and informational visits from those elders. As personal relationships are established, it will be easier to identify unmet needs that could be a great fit for a senior programs unit to address. And paired with a healthy meal, group games and light entertainment, such an event can provide important socializing and critical information for an elderly population that is growing daily as baby boomers reach their retirement years.

Randy Wiger is the Parks Commons Program Coordinator for the Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation.




1. Marriage equality too late for LGBT seniors By Annise Parker and Ann J. Robison, June 25, 2015


2. 6 Problems Of Aging While Gay, by Ann Brenoff, Senior Writer/Columnist, The Huffington Post


3. Improving the Lives of LGBT Older Adults Services & Advocacy for LGBT Elders (SAGE) 2010


4. "Improving the Lives of LGBT Older Adults" (Movement Advancement Project, 2010)


5. “In Their Own Words: A Needs Assessment of Hispanic LGBT OlderAdults.” The National Hispanic Council on Aging (NHCOA) (2013)


6.  Gay And Old: 'A Special Class Of People?' by John Feather, Ph.D.