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By Curtis Lipscomb and Kathleen LaTosch
Since the mid-2000s there’s been a lot of buzz in metro Detroit’s LGBT community about what’s happening to and for our lesbian, gay, bi and transgender older adults. And there’s good reason for it. There are an estimated 22,000 LGBT elders, ages 65 and better, living in Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties right now. Another 20,000 will hit the 65-year-old mark by 2020. This tidal wave of aging baby boomers, known by mainstream aging service providers as the “Silver Tsunami,” also comes in lavender and teal.
In the spring of last year, Healing Detroit and the LGBT Older Adult Coalition both simultaneously hosted dialogues about this emerging issue. The findings were similar to what national experts are seeing around the country – LGBT older adults are living in fear and isolation. Only 10 percent of LGBT elders have children to help care for them – as compared to 80 percent of heterosexual elders. Seventy percent of LGBT seniors live alone, as compared to just 30 percent of straight seniors. LGBT older adults are three times as likely to live in poverty due to inequalities related to a lifetime of workplace discrimination and a lack of marriage benefits like social security survivor payments and tax-free inheritances.
Both summits revealed that metro Detroit’s LGBT elders faced significant isolation. Today’s LGBT elders find mainstream aging services in metro Detroit unwelcoming to LGBT people – both direct care workers/staff and other service recipients who came of age at a time when you could be jailed or institutionalized for being gay. They also find a lack of aging services available through local LGBT organizations. Socially, many older gay men feel isolated and left out of a community which can place a strong emphasis on image and youthfulness. Participants from both summits talked about facing significant financial instability – from concerns about healthcare to housing affordability.
But there were some significant differences between the two summits.
The most significant difference identified between these two groups – one targeted an African American Detroit-resident audience while the other attracted a mainly Caucasian, suburban audience, was that black Detroiters had concerns specifically revolving around living in the city as an LGBT elder, whereas white suburbanites rarely mentioned their town or city as a significant issue – beyond a concern of general isolation. Our African American LGBT community members living in the city, already facing tremendous isolation and heightened financial concerns, also have to deal with the same city issues facing all residents. Of those issues, unemployment and public safety topped the list (for a complete report, visit http://www.e-kick.org or http://www.lgbtolderadults.com).
Research shows, and it certainly doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out, that as you compound layers of adversity, risk dramatically increases. The outlook for a white 70-year-old lesbian who’s a retired gym teacher living in the suburbs is considerably different from the black 70-year-old lesbian who worked as a blue collar manufacturer for her entire life, is now disabled and living in an unsafe neighborhood with inadequate public transportation and an extremely low public safety response time. And her concerns are very different from the suburban lesbian.
And yet we are all in this together – we are family.
This year – coming June 23 – the Elder Project at KICK (a spinoff program from last year’s Healing Detroit Summit) is partnering with the LGBT Older Adult Coalition to co-host one unified summit – The 2012 LGBT Older Adult Summit. It takes place from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm at the MSU Detroit Center, 3408 Woodward Avenue (next to the WSU’s Bonstelle Theater) in Detroit and features workshops and panels addressing isolation, healthcare, finances, and employment. The conference is free to attend, but you must RSVP in advance at http://www.LGBTOlderadults.com.
Frequently, the unspoken definition of “the LGBT community” defaults to the dominant or majority culture, and as is common in the Metro Detroit region, this all too often means white and suburban. We are working hard, together, to ensure that as we move forward to plan services for LGBT elders, they are sensitive to the needs of a wide range of people.
Further, we challenge readers to think about the whole LGBT community as a broad and diverse cross-section of our Metro Detroit region’s population. For a community that is often isolated from biological family members, turning to our chosen “family” – our whole family – is a strength we can and should count on.