By Shane Lantz
The Seattle City Council may soon be trying to improve their response to the problems of one of the most overlooked and underserved segments of the cities’ population.
Seattle has the fifth largest LGBTQ population in the nation, and with an increased number of the LGBTQ crowd reaching their older years, it is important that the city fund a new program that will try to make it easier for them to access culturally sensitive and appropriate health and support services, according to a new University of Washington sponsored-proposal called “Aging with Pride: Addressing Unmet Needs of Seattle’s LGBT Older Adults.”
City Councilman Tom Rasmussen is spearheading an effort to get the city council to approve $75,000 in funding for the program from the city, which, along with a $75,000 in-kind match from the Aging with Pride program in the first year.
The program is a pilot that will teach caregivers of elderly LGBTQ people how to work with their patients in a way that tries to respect cultural differences and addresses the unique challenges that come with caring for someone in this community, on both a health and a cultural level.
Forty-five percent of LGBTQ seniors live alone and are at a higher risk of poor health, mental distress, disability, and social isolation, according to a report submitted to the council, called “At Risk and Underserved: LGBTQ Older Adults in Seattle/King County.” This could lead to health problems later in life, both mental and physical, according to the UW-sponsored report, which surveyed 2,560 people across the county.
“The challenge in aging for anyone is to try a really robust social network,” Rasmussen said. “It’s incredibly important for physical and mental health for human beings to have that kind of social interaction. It becomes challenging as you get older.”
In order to combat the cultural isolation many LGBTQ elders feel, the proposal recommends the council approve money for a training program for health and human services professionals. The training would also go to training informal caregivers such as friends and family, to help them be able to address the unique needs and challenges that come with caring for the LGBTQ community.
“It’s one that I care about,” Rasmussen said. “I worked on issues related to seniors for a long time, since I’ve been on the council. I’ll be advocating for city support to my colleagues. I have to get four members of the city council to agree to add this funding in.”
Karen Fredriksen-Goldsen, lead researcher in the study, and the Director of the Hartford School of Excellence at the UW School of Social Work, said the program would also attempt to help the seniors lead healthier social lives, and that could mean giving them a place to socialize and meet with others who otherwise also would be at risk for social isolation. There would be an emphasis on both peer-to-peer, and intergenerational support for those at risk, where people from all different generations could work together to meet the needs of LGBTQ adults.
One part of the focus would be to provide training to caregivers, both medically and personally to most effectively serve those in the LGBTQ community. Most human services providers lack the training to serve the LGBTQ community, and 16 percent of respondents reported that they received inferior care or were denied service based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, according to the survey.
Susan Snyder is the Executive Director of the Evidence-Based Leadership Council, and has been an activist for the LGBT community. She discussed why she believes the proposal is an important issue in the community.
“A lot of them just don’t feel safe,” Snyder said. “There is a lack of education of staff working with the LGBT community. Discrimination still exists, especially for trans people.”
Simply making providers aware of the existence of issues facing the older LGBTQ community could go a long way toward helping them lead healthier and more fulfilling lives, according to Fredriksen-Goldsen.
“This population is so invisible,” Fredriksen-Goldsen said. “A lot of the providers just don’t realize that these elders are in their midst. That doesn’t seem like a constructive framework.”
Part of the reason the LGBTQ population could be struggling could simply be generational differences. Many older adults experienced traumatic discrimination when they were younger, and about one in six are afraid of seeking help outside the LGBTQ community, according to the survey. About 68 percent of those surveyed say they have experienced three or more incidents of victimization as a result of their sexual orientation, with the most common incident being verbal assault.
“The older generation of LGBT elders tended to be quite reluctant to seek help, quite cautious about being out to anyone,” Rasmussen said. “When they were younger, the discrimination, the hostility and the violence against LGBT people was very severe. They grew up in that kind of environment, so they are very reluctant to reach out to anyone. It can be a very isolating experience.”
Fai Coffin, who runs a lesbian support group at Southeast Seattle Senior Center, would like to see more programs make housing and treatment centers more welcoming for LGBTQ seniors, as well as an improvement in being able to socialize with peers.
“One of the most important things we need is a place to meet,” Coffin said. “We’d like to know we can make housing more welcoming for LGBTQIA people, and also long-term care facilities. As advanced as we are in Seattle, we have a long way to go.”
There was a public meeting at Seattle City Hall on October 20 to discuss the proposal, and it will continue to be discussed as a budget option over the next few months. A final decision should be made by Thanksgiving, according to Rasmussen.
Rasmussen, who will not seek reelection when his term expires in January, seems hopeful that the public will be vocal in support of the new proposal.
“It’s a well-researched and well-thought-out program,” Rasmussen said. “We do provide a great deal of funding for human services in Seattle. I think if the community shows there is support for this, it’s far more likely to be approved by a majority of the council. I’m hopeful we’ll get a good response for the community, saying ‘this is important to do, we would like the council to support that.’”
Reach Shane Lantz on Twitter @Shane_Lantz93.