Enhancing the Aging Experience of Pennsylvania’s LGBTQ Community

Enhancing the Aging Experience of Pennsylvania's LGBTQ CommunityCredit: Commonwealth Media Services
by Robert Torres, Pennsylvania Secretary of Aging

The Wolf Administration is committed to making the commonwealth a welcoming, safe and inclusive environment for all Pennsylvanians. The Department of Aging is dedicated to ensuring the same experience for every older adult, including people in the LGBTQ community and other marginalized groups who have felt excluded for too long. The department is working to enhance its outreach and communication efforts and we will continue to listen to the voices of our LGBTQ older adult community so that we can reach those who need our services and allow them to age with the dignity and respect they deserve.

Members of the LGBTQ community are truly resilient trailblazers in our nation’s history. Since the Stonewall uprising in 1969, this community has fought against discrimination and inequality, leading to much of the progress we see today, including the legalization of same-sex marriage and the designation of June as LGBTQ Pride Month.

Recently, the LGBTQ community received another historic victory when the Supreme Court ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects gay, lesbian and transgender workers from employment discrimination. This was a welcome triumph after just days earlier the community learned they could be stripped of their rights to health care because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, previously guaranteed under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Despite societal progress in recent years, LGBTQ older adults have endured a lifelong history of discrimination, prejudice and social stigma. LGBTQ older adults are more likely to be single and live alone, which further exacerbates any existing health disparities. This is particularly applicable to individuals with HIV/AIDS, live in poverty, lack the support of others or are socially isolated. I have met with LGBTQ older adults at the Persad Center in Pittsburgh and the William Way Community Center in Philadelphia to learn about and understand their challenges and concerns, and like all older adults, they expressed the desire to grow older independently, with a sense of purpose and well-being, while being free from fear of discrimination for staying true to who they are.

There are more than three million people age 60 and older living in Pennsylvania. By 2040, nearly one in three Pennsylvanians will be over the age of 60. LGBTQ older adults are a part of this growing and diversifying population. With this outlook, the Department of Aging remains committed to being responsive to the needs of a growing, diverse older adult population and ensuring equitable access to services for all older adults.

The commonwealth has made progress to improve the landscape for LGBTQ older adults. In 2018, Governor Wolf established the Governor’s Commission on LGBTQ Affairs, the first of its kind in the nation. The commission created an aging workgroup with statewide representation, including a Department of Aging representative. The department collaborated with SAGE – a nationwide service provider for LGBTQ older adults – and became SAGECare Platinum Certified for LGBTQ cultural competency. By the end of this year, many of our 52 Area Agencies on Aging (AAAs) will also be certified. In addition, our Office of Long-Term Care Ombudsman and the Aging and Disabilities Resource Center staff and volunteers have had cultural competency training.

The relationship between the Department of Aging and the LGBTQ community will be further reinforced as input from the community is considered in the development of our new State Plan on Aging for 2020-2024. The department’s plan will be submitted to the federal government by October 1, and will include goals, objectives, strategies and measures that prioritize the needs of and services for all older adults moving into the future.

A survey by the Aging Workgroup of the Governor’s Commission on LGBTQ Affairs was designed to help develop recommendations for the State Plan on Aging. It provides a snapshot of the service needs for LBGTQ older adults. The survey found that 75% of LGBTQ older adults would be much more likely to receive services from an organization if its staff had completed LGBTQ culture competence/humility training. Eighty-one percent of respondents said they have not used services from their local AAA while 43% said they could not identify their AAA.  When it comes to the Department of Aging, 46% of LGBTQ older adults said they were not familiar with the services we offer, yet 28% said they wanted to learn more.

These results highlight that we have much more work to do and illustrate how critical it is for Pennsylvania to listen, understand and address the needs of LGBTQ older adults, including ensuring that providers are welcoming and culturally competent.

Robert Torres serves as Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Aging.

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