LGBT Healthy Aging Toolkit
October 2015 | Leland Kiang, LICSW
Healthy aging? Who wouldn’t want to stay healthy as they age? Yet, one doesn’t have to search far to hear about age-related challenges. Research shows that more than a third of older Americans report having some difficulty with living independently, walking, self-care, hearing, memory, or vision.
While sobering, these statistics do not tell the whole story. In fact, ageism, myths, and misconceptions have led many to believe that deterioration in old age is inevitable. Yet many challenges, often thought to be normal in aging, are treatable or preventable.
Intended as an orientation, this toolbox offers links to resources and practical steps to help all of us achieve good health as we age.
Even today, many people associate decline and deterioration as inevitable aspects of aging. Yet, some characteristics—often mistakenly attributed to aging like fatigue, confusion, and frailty—may in fact be symptoms of treatable medical conditions. Infections and dehydration, for example, are common causes of confusion. Frailty, characterized by unintentional weight loss, may stem from Parkinson’s disease, cancer, or colitis; and fatigue is symptomatic of depression, high blood pressure, and heart disease. While people of all ages and orientations benefit from receiving regular medical check-ups, doing so is especially important for LGBT elders, who run higher risks for certain diseases including breast cancer for lesbians, HIV for gay men, and heart disease for all LGBT elders. LGBT elders concerned about sharing their sexual orientation with medical professionals may benefit from visiting LGBT-friendly physicians and clinics.
- Find LGBT-friendly physicians on the website of the Gay & Lesbian Medical Association.
- Find LGBT-friendly cancer-screening clinics at the National LGBT Cancer Network.
- Find LGBT-friendly hospitals from the Human Rights Campaign.
- Find an HIV testing site via the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Find advice on what LGBT patients should discuss with their healthcare providers from the Gay & Lesbian Medical Association.
- Find additional advice for finding LGBT friendly medical professionals from the Human Rights Campaign.
- Find general advice on patient/doctor communication from the National Institutes of Health.
Good nutrition and exercise also can protect elders from disease and decline. Studies show older adults who exercise regularly may improve their ability to age independently, reduce their risk of falls, elevate their mood, and lower their risk of developing certain diseases. In terms of “real life,” the National Institute on Aging notes that exercise may “make it easier to stand on tip toe to reach something on the top shelf…bend down to tie your shoes…[and] carry in groceries from the car.” Healthy eating may reduce the risk of bone loss, stroke, heart disease, and certain cancers; as well as improve energy levels throughout the day.
- See federal guidelines on exercise for older adults from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Learn how to stay safe while exercising from the National Institute on Aging.
- Find age-friendly exercises that can be done at home via the National Institute on Aging.
- Find an age-friendly fitness center via AARP and the International Council on Active Aging.
- See whether your Medicare Advantage or Medigap policy might pay for fitness via Silver Sneakers.
- Find tips for healthy eating via the National Institute on Aging.
- Find low-cost recipes for eating on a budget via the USDA.
- Find home delivered meals via Meals on Wheels.
As with misconceptions about healthy aging, misunderstandings about elder memory loss and mood abound. While minor changes in the rate at which older brains learn and retrieve new information is not uncommon with aging, major memory changes (including failure to recognize loved ones, getting lost in familiar places, and confusion between day and night) should cause concern. Dozens of medical conditions can cause memory loss. “Dementia” causing diseases, like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, are permanent and progressive, though in some cases medication may slow progression. Other medical conditions (including infections, vitamin deficiencies, dehydration, and medication interactions) can cause what’s known as “delirium.” Timely treatment of delirium can improve memory functioning. A geriatrician or neurologist can help identify specific causes of memory loss.
- Learn the signs of dementia via the Alzheimer’s Association.
- Learn the signs of delirium via the Mayo Clinic.
- Learn how geriatricians or neurologist diagnose memory loss via the Alzheimer’s Association.
- Find a geriatrician or neurologist on Medicare’s website.
Memory loss also can be caused by changes in mood, like depression and anxiety. Due to decades of discrimination, LGBT elders are at greater risk of these mood disorders. No longer seen as strictly psychological conditions, depression and anxiety have been linked to treatable changes in the body. Many anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications exist. A physician can help choose the one that works best for their patient. Non-medication treatment, like counseling or talk-therapy, also has been shown to be effective.
- Find an LGBT-friendly counselor or psychotherapist via Help Pro.
- Find an LGBT-friendly psychiatrist from the Association of Gay & Lesbian Psychiatrists.
Research also indicates that LGBT individuals have higher risks of alcoholism. While harmful to people of all ages, excessive alcohol consumption may be especially dangerous for older adults. Normal changes in the body, along with disease and medication interactions increase elders risk for falls, worsening health, and death.
- Find alcohol and substance abuse treatment via the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration.
- Find an LGBT-friendly Alcoholics Anonymous group from GaL-AA.
- Find a non-religious alcoholic self-help group via SMART- Recovery.
Sexuality and Intimacy
Misconceptions also exist about sexuality and aging. One of the biggest myths is that older adults are not interested in sex, or for whatever reason should not have sex. The desire for sex and intimacy continues even as people age; and a satisfying sex life has been associated with healthy aging. Still, normal changes in the body, as well as illness and medications may necessitate modifications in the process. Safe sex also should be practiced, especially when one is with a new partner.
- Learn how aging, illness, and medications affect sex via the National Institute on Aging.
- Find safe sex tips for elders from the American Geriatrics Society.
Spirit and Community
Research suggests that older adults who engage with others in enjoyable activities, or otherwise have a feeling of purpose, live longer and healthier lives. Like all older adults, LGBT elders find purpose via a variety of paths. Some find it through faith and spirituality; others through creativity; and still others from volunteering, activism, or social engagement. LGBT elders seeking new ways to engage or re-engage may find the following resources helpful.
- Find LGBT affirming faith communities (including Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu) at the end of the Human Rights Campaign brochure, Coming Home to Faith, Spirit, and Self.
- Find LGBT community centers via Center Link.
- Find creative aging programs at the National Center for Creative Aging.
- Find LGBT social engagement and activism at SAGE, and at the American Society on Aging’s LGBT Aging Issues Network.
- Find lesbian-specific social engagement and activism at Older Lesbians Organizing for Change, and at ZAMI National Organization of Black Lesbians on Aging.
- Find gay male specific social engagement at Prime Timers.
Thanks to ageism and aging myths, many people in our society have a fatalistic view of getting older. However, the truth is more complex. Learning the truth about aging, and taking practical steps to reduce our risk of illness, may help each of us live longer, healthier, and more satisfying lives.
Leland Kiang, LICSW is manager of Iona Senior Services’ Information & Referral in Washington DC. Iona’s program (202-895-9448) answers questions about elder-related human services in the DC metropolitan area.