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social sciences

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The aging process includes many positive aspects, among which are sometimes the attainment of maturity, wisdom, and perspective. Indeed, many people, especially those fortunate enough to enjoy good health and financial security, find their senior years truly golden, the most fulfilling and satisfying time of their lives. Still, few will deny that growing older in a youth-centered society poses both emotional and physical challenges.

While much of the dread of aging is based on stereotypes and myths rather than reality, there is no doubt that the prospect of aging brings with it numerous concerns, ranging from health and financial worries and problems to the struggle to maintain autonomy, the fear of loneliness, and the possibility of social isolation. Nearly all of these problems are exacerbated by pervasive ageism on both institutional and individual levels. Most of these concerns are shared by older adults regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

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Although there is a popular mythology that presents elderly homosexuals as pathetic and lonely figures, research shows that gay and lesbian seniors do not differ significantly from their heterosexual counterparts in respect to satisfaction with life and other key indicators of mental health in the adjustment to aging. Indeed, there is some evidence that lesbians and gay men, having coped with issues of stigma and discrimination, are actually better able to deal with the stresses of aging than their heterosexual cohorts.

In addition, gay men and lesbians who have been well integrated into communities have often developed networks of close friends and lead active social lives. Such networks and such social activity often prove beneficial in easing the aging process.

Challenges Faced by Glbtq Seniors

Gay, lesbian, bisexual, , and queer people do, however, often encounter a particular set of challenges that can make aging especially difficult. For example, persistent institutional and often present major obstacles to the older glbtq adult seeking housing, social services, or medical care. The widespread presumption of both heterosexuality and asexuality among older people has an effect on glbtq seniors whether they are living independently or in long-term care facilities. Moreover, the devaluing of same-sex sexual relationships by officials and institutions may result in denying recognition to caregivers and long-time partners when medical and other decisions need to be made on behalf of incapacitated individuals.

In addition, glbtq culture is hardly exempt from the ageism widely present in mainstream society. Indeed, ageism may be more severe in glbtq communities. Aging gay men, for instance, rarely find themselves represented in queer media, which tends to uphold a homogeneous archetype of youthful male attractiveness.

Due to this lack of representation, indeed invisibility, one might speculate that older glbtq adults are not a significant presence in the United States. But this is not the reality. Estimates of the current number of American glbtq adults over age sixty vary from 1.75 to 3.5 million. This number is expected to increase substantially beginning in the year 2011, when the baby boomer generation approaches retirement age. By the year 2030, between four and six million glbtq adults will be senior citizens.

Coming Out: A Generational Issue

The lack of visibility of older glbtq people is also related to the differing social environments in which older and younger generations have been reared. Attitudes toward homosexuality in earlier decades were far more repressive than those of today. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual elders who grew up in oppressive eras and places may have never identified themselves as such; while the term "transgender" has only come into our lexicon fairly recently.

Same-sex partnerships of decades past were often self-defined as "friendships" and may have borne similarities to the of the late nineteenth century. In other words, there was no "gay lifestyle" to speak of for many of the elderly people we now term glbtq. Because of these circumstances, many older individuals may have never felt safe enough to come out except perhaps to their closest friends and partners. Without coming out, they are also likely not to have made the legal arrangements that might guarantee the rights of their partners or the recognition of alternative families.

Glbtq elders who did come out may encounter discrimination in the health care system, in long-term care, and in employment opportunities, based not only on their age but on their sexual orientation. Without culturally competent care in geriatricians' offices, senior centers, adult homes, or assisted living facilities, glbtq seniors may feel vulnerable and alone.

Issues of Safety

Glbtq elders may feel uncomfortable disclosing their sexual orientation every time they work with a new health care provider or social worker, and many care facilities--and agencies that provide home attendant services--do not demonstrate an acceptance of and respect for minority orientations and gender identities.

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