Council Report Details Discrimination Against LGBT Elders

While many older adults suffer from health issue stemming from stig­ma, isolation and unequal treatment, aging dilemmas for gay men are even compounded by other than just medical issues.

According to a report by the National Council on Aging and the American Society on Aging in Chicago, Illinois, gay adults are not only more likely to be “poorer and sicker” in their old age when compared to their heterosexual peers, but present laws treat them unjustly.

Many older LGBTs’ financial woes arguably can be traced to the fact that subtle discrimination meant thinner paychecks, limited access to health care, and fewer chances to build pensions. For some, it also meant smaller Social Security payments, the council report concluded.

Citing a 2009 study, the report noted that lesbian couples’ Social Security benefits are typically 31.5 percent smaller and gay couples’ benefits are 17.8 percent smaller than are those of heterosexual couples,

Family members provide about 80 percent of long-term care in the United States, but that’s not the case with LGBT elders, since they are more likely to be single, childless and estranged from their biological families, said the report.

That’s just the beginning of the cycle of discrimination. The stunning report cited “official policies, laws and institutional regulations” that offer same-sex partners few of the resources afforded to spouses and biological family members.

Stated Wilton Manors attorney Jeff Selzer, known for providing estate planning to the LGBT community, “these are many of the unique issues elder gays encounter. That is why wealth planning is essential to their future.”

Selzer’s conclusion was echoed in the report, which noted that laws, programs and services either “don’t acknowledge or don’t protect the partners” of LGBTs. Another Wilton Manors estate planning attorney agreed. Said Greg Kabel, “LGBT elders need to be forewarned about future problems because the laws do not and will not treat them fairly,” he said.

The report cited a 2001 study by the U.S. Administration on Aging that found LGBT elderly are only a fifth as likely as heterosexuals to use such services as senior centers, housing assistance, meal programs, food stamps and other entitlements.

“There’s a whole labyrinth of challenges and pitfalls for same-sex couples and LGBTs in general,” said Michael Adams, the executive director of Services & Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Elders, who helped write the report.

The report cited these other inequalities as well:

  • Despite paying into Social Security, LGBT elders don’t get the same benefits that their heterosexual peers get, with the biggest difference being that same-sex couples are denied spousal and survivor benefits routinely provided to married heterosexual couples.
  • Similar disparities occur in Medicaid and long-term care programs. Medicaid does not require a healthy partner to impoverish himself or herself to qualify a spouse for long-term care. But spousal impoverishment protections do not exist for same-sex couples and families of choice.
  • LGBT elders’ IRAs and other retirement plans have benefits that are unequal to those enjoyed by heterosexual couples.
  • Employer policies regarding pensions do not provide surviving partners of same-sex couples with the same financial protections that are accorded heterosexual couples, the report said.
  • Under federal tax law, employers can provide health insurance to the heterosexual spouse of a current or retired employee tax-free, but insurance benefits for partners in same-sex couples are taxable.
  • A surviving heterosexual spouse can inherit the couple’s assets without incurring a tax penalty, but federal and state law requires same-sex partners to pay inheritance taxes in some cases.
  • Heterosexual spouses of military veterans get federal benefits, including pensions for spouses of service members killed in combat, medical care and home-loan guarantees, none of which is available to same-sex partners of veterans.
  • It is typically more complex and expensive for same-sex couples to navigate inheritance laws than it is for heterosexual couples.

The disparities also extend to health care, with LGBT elders more likely to delay getting needed care and more likely to have HIV/AIDS and chronic mental and physical conditions, the report said.

Even personnel at places that deliver health care may discriminate, it said.

“These providers may be hostile, discriminatory, or simply unaware that LGBT elders exist,” it said.

Nursing homes sometimes have staff who create unwelcome environments for LGBT elders and rules—such as visitation policies and medical decision-making laws—that exclude families of choice, it said.

Social isolation can loom large as a quality-of-life issue among LGBT elders, who are more likely than others to live alone, the report said.

Such isolation has been linked to higher rates of depression, poverty, re-hospitalization, delayed care-seeking, poor nutrition and premature death, the report said.

Not only do LGBT elders lack support from many mainstream aging programs, including senior centers and places of worship, but elder LGBTs tend to lack support from and feel unwelcome in the broader LGBT community, it said.

Finally, LGBT elders may face discrimination in connecting to their communities by being denied housing in mainstream retirement communities.

“This discrimination may separate LGBT elders from loved friends or partners, or push them into homelessness,” it said, adding, “LGBT elders may also feel the need to re-enter or stay in the closet in order to obtain or maintain housing.”

Adams expressed optimism that changes will occur, but slowly. “It’s taken decades and decades to build up this neglect, and we’re not going to solve it overnight,” he said.

He said he was asking that the government apply “a neutral policy” to LGBT older people, according them the same protections and services accorded to heterosexuals. He cited the Social Security and Medicaid programs as discriminatory.

The report was released in collaboration with the Movement Advancement Project and such mainstream groups as the National Senior Citizens Law Center and the Center for American Progress. The foreword to the 90-page report came from AARP.