Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=184738
Story Retrieval Date: 12/11/2013 7:01:28 PM CST
Wallie Hall was essentially alone in the world after his partner died about seven years ago. He and his partner hadn’t gone out much, so he didn’t have any acquaintances to spend time with in Chicago, he said. He also wasn’t in the best physical shape. He felt isolated.
“I was considerably overweight,” Hall said. “I had no friends.”
The 69-year-old Lakeview resident has since lost about 100 pounds and formed friendships that have improved his mood.
The problems Hall faced are a significant concern for aging LGBT adults. Getting older can be difficult, especially for people who are isolated. Aging members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community are especially at risk for mental health issues, due to the impact of societal stigma and a greater likelihood of living alone.
Older people in general face an increased risk of depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. About 50 percent of seniors have two or more chronic health conditions, and an estimated 13.5 percent of those who require home health care suffer from major depression.
The CDC also reports that members of the LGBT community are more likely to experience depression and anxiety as a result of discrimination and homophobia.
Additionally, recent research suggests that LGBT seniors are more prone to isolation and psychological distress than their heterosexual peers. Researchers at the University of California Los Angeles Center for Health Policy Research reported in a study that half of Californian gay and bisexual men aged 50 to 70 live alone, compared with only 13.4 percent of straight men. More than one in four lesbian and bisexual women in California live alone as well.
Joe Camper is the program director for the Valeo unit for LGBT patients at Chicago Lakeshore Hospital, a psychiatric facility. He has worked with a number of community members who are 50 or older, though he doesn’t want to make generalizations about older LGBT people’s mental health.
“Possibly the majority of them have fulfilling lives with lots of loved ones,” he said.
However, Camper agreed that, as a group, they are more vulnerable for several reasons. One is that they might have difficulty finding doctors and nursing homes that are sensitive to their needs. He said they also may not have partners living with them because of social opposition to gay relationships and marriage. They were young at a time when gay marriage wasn’t legal anywhere in the country, he said.
“They may be at a significantly higher risk for isolation,” he said.
The fact that LGBT culture tends to be youth-oriented doesn’t help older members of the community, Camper said. Because they grew up in a time when the societal stigma against sexual minorities was more severe, they have a significant life experience gap with the younger generation. He said this divide between old and young people keeps seniors from staying involved in the mainstream culture.
They might not have family members close by either. He said many move away from their hometowns to more tolerant cities such as Chicago.
“They may not have their family of origin at the place where they live,” he said. “They move here alone.”
Isolation is a significant risk factor for mental illness in older people, according to psychologist Donald Schultz, who teaches courses on aging on the Los Angeles campus of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology.
“Depression is likely in people who have a lack of social support,” he said. “Geriatric depression is a major issue.”
Poor physical health can also contribute to mental deterioration. He said seniors should try to eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly and get enough sleep.
“The health of our body correlates to the health of our mind,” he said.
Chicago’s LGBT community includes some groups geared toward seniors, such as the Center on Halsted’s Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders program.
“I think we’re moving in a good direction,” Camper said.
The Center on Halsted launched a home-sharing program for older adults last December. Britta Larson, who manages the program, said it matches older LGBT people with renters who can provide companionship as well as help with housework. Larson said the program aims to combat isolation.
“Many of our LGBT older adults are aging alone,” she said.
Hall said he decided to end his isolation by joining one of those groups. He initially took part in the Center on Halsted’s programming for seniors. Today, he is president of the Chicago Prime Timers, a group for older gay men that meets regularly for potlucks, opera appreciation nights, bicycling and other activities. He said being part of these social groups transformed his life.
“I got to know people, and my life became very full,” he said. “I opened up a lot more.”