Potluck dinners may not resolve the hurdles faced by rural LGBTQ elders, but they are a convenient means to fight the isolation endured by this vulnerable group.
Rural Elders: At Risk But Resilient
Rural elders who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender or queer are a resilient group, and that shall help them as they age, some experts tell. They chose to live in a rural area and have learned to defeat or cruise around discrimination without the supportive political and social networks that are popular in large cities.
Less ‘Out’ Than Their Urban Counterparts
Among the obstacles faced by rural LGBTQ elders is access to high-quality healthcare and housing. That is due in part to geography or the shortage of mass transit. LGBTQ individuals are, as well, more unwilling to come out to their healthcare providers — a notable impediment to getting sufficient care.
One of the few studies that compared LGBTQ elders in rural and urban areas showed rural members of the community were much less “out” than their urban counterparts. Housing is a vital concern, and some moving into nursing homes or assisted living facilities need to reconsider if going back into the closet is a safer path to bypass harassment.
Training Needed for Rural Hospitals, Nursing Homes
The number of LGBT Americans over 60 is estimated to be between 1.75 and 4 million. Research on the particular challenges of rural LGBTQ elders is insufficient.
What we do understand is this: all LGBTQ older adults have higher rates of disability and mental distress than heterosexual elders. They are also less financially stable. The hurdles for transgender older adults are even more daunting, with that group facing a significantly only higher risk of poor health, disability and stress, according to one study.
Building Social Networks Is Key
Promoting social networks is one of the most extraordinary steps a community — rural or urban — can take to support LGBTQ older adults. This can come in many fashions, and not just potlucks.
In the Albany, N.Y., area, the Pride Center of the Capital Region is forming a Friendly Neighbor Program to connect older members of the community with younger ones to mitigate loneliness and to help out in other ways. The group also hosts a monthly potluck.
From AIDS to Aging
Ultimately, members organized a formal nonprofit organization with the mission to cultivate “community, intimacy, and personal exploration among gay, bi, and queer men through shared values and heart-centered brotherhood,” according to its website. As time went on, the magnitude of the HIV crisis lightened, but the importance of the friendships and gatherings grew.
“Aging is a big issue now,” stated Paul Mueller, 66, the group’s president. “We feel the need to look out for each other.”
Networks Can Be Tenuous
But there are obstacles in rural areas for aging LGBTQ people, they said. One of them is the fear that despite the friends and relationships you make, it might not be sufficient if critical times come.
“As we grow older, you realize those social networks become risky,” Goslant stated. “What happens if you are the last person standing?”
Part of the Strengthening Rural Health Care for Older Adults Special Report
(Editor’s note: This story is part of a special report for The John A. Hartford Foundation.)