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Pandemic Has Taken a Mental Health Toll on LGBTQ+

New AARP survey finds concerns about finances, social support and housing

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The pandemic has taken a toll on older adults, but a recent AARP survey finds it’s been especially hard on the LGBTQ+ community. While most LGBTQ+ adults 50+ rate their emotional and mental well-being as high, many acknowledge that it’s been hard to manage negative emotions over the past year. About half say they have days when they feel anxious, another third report insomnia and/or little interest or pleasure in doing activities they used to enjoy, and about 30 percent note that they’ve experienced moments of depression.

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This mirrors what mental health providers for the LGBTQ+ community say they’re seeing among their clients. “Prior to the pandemic, the call rate to our National Elder Hotline was 30 to 40 calls a month,” says Sherrill Wayland, director of special initiatives at SAGE: Advocacy & Services for LGBTQ+ Elders), a nonprofit advocacy group for LBGTQ+ elders. “Now we’re averaging 350.” Among their biggest concerns: anxiety, financial worries, lack of social support and housing insecurity.

The good news is that many older LGBTQ+ adults, like other AARP members surveyed, appear to be resilient. One in two rate both their emotional and mental health as high, and more than 60 percent are optimistic that they will get better at managing negative feelings over the next six months. But “it’s important that we not rely on resiliency, and make sure we have systems and programs in place to help older LGBTQ+ adults continue to manage some of these negative feelings, so that they can get through these tough times,” stresses Wayland, who has a master of social work degree.

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Here’s a look at some of the most important AARP findings, as well as some helpful resources.

LGBTQ+ older adults worry about housing discrimination

The AARP survey found that 41 percent of LGBTQ+ people are at least somewhat concerned about having to hide their identity to access suitable housing as they age. “We’ve seen cases during the pandemic of older adults who were denied housing support for long-term care,” says Wayland. In one recent case in Maine, for example, a 79-year-old transgender woman named Marie King was denied residency at an assisted living facility after staff expressed discomfort with the fact that King would want to share a room with a female resident.

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Another report, from AARP New York and SAGE, found that 20 percent of LGBTQ+ seniors in New York reported being turned away from long-term care facilities because of their gender or sexuality, and nearly 25 percent experienced physical or verbal abuse from other residents. To help counter this, SAGE has created a list of LGBTQ+-friendly housing developers, which you can access here. It also has a list of skilled nursing and assisted living facilities that are SAGECare certified, which means staff has gone through specific LGBTQ+ training.

Many LGBTQ+ older adults experience loneliness and isolation

“This is a population already at high risk for isolation and disconnection, and whatever social connections these individuals had evaporated literally overnight during the pandemic,” says Steven Haden, chief executive officer of Envision: You, an organization in Denver devoted to improving LGBTQ+ mental health. In addition, the AARP survey found that 82 percent of LGBTQ+ individuals are at least somewhat concerned about having adequate family and social supports as they age.

One silver lining of COVID, however, was that many LGBTQ+ older adults stepped up to care for one another. The AARP survey, for example, found that 13 percent of respondents began to care for someone new during the pandemic. “Sometimes support circles became even closer, as people moved together to support one another,” Wayland says. “But one concern we do have in caregiving is same-age peers. If two 80-year-olds care for one another, that becomes a fragile support network.” Case in point: The AARP survey found that about half of all caregivers report that they lack companionship, and feel left out and isolated. “Our goal should be to ensure more cross-generational support,” Wayland says. One new program that sprang out of the pandemic is SAGE Connect, a phone-buddy program that matches LGBTQ+ elders with volunteers for weekly phone calls. “We’ve found that as relationships evolve, people develop an ongoing conversation that happens throughout the week,” says Wayland.

More than half of LGBTQ+ older adults report having a disability

A full 75 percent of all LGBTQ+ older adults report that they are in good health — but more than half say they have a disability that keeps them from participating fully in work, school, household or other activities. Research shows that about 44 percent of LGBTQ+ teens report having adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, which can dramatically affect physical and mental health in adulthood, says Haden, who has a master of social work degree. Adverse childhood experiences are linked to obesity, smoking and heavy drinking as well as such chronic health problems as depression, asthma, cancer and diabetes in adulthood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Yet despite higher rates of trauma, the AARP report found that only about 20 percent of LGBTQ+ individuals over the age of 45 see a mental health provider to treat depression or anxiety. “We’re seeing significant increases in people calling crisis hotlines, including suicide prevention hotlines,” says Haden, who adds that hospitalizations for psychiatric concerns have risen as well. “Unfortunately, most medical and behavioral health providers aren’t trained on how to support members of the LGBTQ+ community.”

One good resource is GLMA: Health Professionals Advancing LGBTQ Equality, which offers an online provider directory, so you can search for primary care providers, specialists and therapists in your area who welcome LGBTQ+ patients.

Most LGBTQ+ older adults are worried about having enough money to retire

Almost two-thirds of participants surveyed said they were in good financial health, although only about a third rated their financial situation as excellent or very good. But more worrisome, most people surveyed — 86 percent — were concerned about having enough income or savings to retire. The concern was particularly pronounced for those ages 45 to 54 as well as for Black and transgender/nonbinary community members. One reason may be because of the precarious place LGBTQ+ older adults can hold in the workplace, Haden points out. Even though in 2020 the U.S. Supreme Court expanded nondiscrimination employment protections, there are still gaps in protection for employees who work for small businesses or religious organizations. “It doesn’t always inspire confidence that you’ll be able to put away enough to comfortably retire,” says Haden.

To help with this, SAGE has started a financial wellness platform specifically to help LGBTQ+ older adults increase stability and reduce economic stress. “We’ve found that the majority of folks who go through this program reduce their debt by around $600, and increase savings,” Wayland explains. “It’s really an opportunity for people to evaluate where they are monetarily and increase financial security.”

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