Aging is a gift that not everyone gets to experience. This is especially true within the LGBTQ+ community, where discrimination, HIV/AIDS and a lack of resources continue to present challenges for the community time and time again. Today, many LGBTQ+ older adults find they face a new challenge as they age: social isolation.
Nightclubs and bars don’t cater to older members of the community and few events make a point of welcoming older adults. Family relationships can be complicated, resulting in thinner support systems for LGBTQ+ older adults. Add into the mix the health risks of socializing as a pandemic continues to spread, and it’s easy to see why older LGBTQ+ adults might feel isolated in their daily lives.
As cherished members of the community, LGBTQ+ older adults deserve to feel the same connection to others as younger folks do. AARP, SAGE, and Whitman-Walker Health are a few examples of the many national and local organizations working to ensure LGBTQ+ older adults never feel alone.
For LGBTQ+ elders who feel isolated and those concerned about the older adults in their lives, AARP Foundation’s Connect2Affect initiative can help identify local options for support. With the tools, tips, and resources the site provides, LGBTQ+ older adults can expand their social circles virtually or in person and keep feelings of isolation at bay.
SAGE, a national organization providing advocacy and services for LGBTQ+ older adults, offers a number of programs designed to tackle loneliness.
“It’s important that older LGBTQ+ people have an opportunity to age in their communities and know that they have access to supportive services,” says Sherrill Wayland, the organization’s senior director of special initiatives and partnerships. With that intention, many of SAGE’s offerings allow elders to connect with others from the comfort of their homes.
SAGEConnect is one of those initiatives. Created at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, SAGEConnect is a buddy program where volunteers call LGBTQ+ elders weekly to talk, check-in and build friendships. The relationship benefits both parties, providing volunteers who may want more interaction with other LGBTQ+ folks or who may be feeling lonely, as well as a regular opportunity for meaningful connection. Wayland says the program has been popular from the start, with over 1300 clients registered for the program and new people signing up each week.
SAGE also offers 24/7, judgment-free support to LGBTQ+ elders via the SAGE National LGBTQ+ Elder Hotline. When calling the hotline, elders are met with crisis response-certified professionals trained in LGBTQ+ cultural competency. Challenges created by the pandemic have resulted in a steep rise in caller volume.
Wayland says that before the pandemic, the hotline averaged 20-30 incoming calls a month. Today the hotline averages more than 400 calls a month. With a simple phone call, the hotline empowers LGBTQ+ elders to reach out for help and support whatever the situation.
In Washington, D.C., Whitman-Walker Health (WWH) offers LGBTQ+ older adults the opportunities to build relationships at the local level. WWH provides comprehensive medical and mental health care to those in the Washington, D.C., metro area, focusing specifically on LGBTQ+ and HIV care. Peer support coordinator Michael Mitchell coordinates peer-led Silver Circles Support Groups. Funded largely by a grant from the city’s Department of Aging and Community Living, and created in partnership with Iona Senior Services, Silver Circles Support Groups offer LGBTQ+ folks 60 and older regular communication with other LGBTQ+ older adults in their area.
Started in 2018, the program now boasts four mostly virtual support groups: two for men, one for women and one open to all genders. Topics of discussion are determined by each group’s members. Mitchell says that when training new group leaders, he stresses that these groups are safe spaces for participants to discuss all aspects of their lives, including caregiving for older parents and new experiences with dating and sex.
Mitchell, who currently supervises one of the groups, says the support the group members provide for LGBTQ+ elders often extends outside of group meetings.
“A member of one group was diagnosed with cancer and fellow group members offered support immediately. They offered to help him get groceries and to attend hospital appointments with him,” Mitchell says. Silver Circles Support Groups meet regularly and boast consistent members, allowing attendees the opportunity to support each other through all of the moments unique to growing older as part of the LGBTQ+ community.
AARP, Whitman-Walker Health and SAGE are three of the many organizations working to help LGBTQ+ older adults maintain important connections with those around them.