Imagine, for a moment, that you’re walking down the street, and you see someone coming toward you. You smile at the person walking in your direction, and instead of smiling back, imagine the person looking right past you, as if you weren’t even there.
It’s happened to all of us at one time or another, and when it does, it can be startling and disappointing. Imagine that it’s happening to you most of the time, and now you have an idea of what it’s like to be an elderly person in the LGBT community. We have rendered the elders of our community invisible. Is it because the elderly are a reminder of what we may be someday? Or don’t want to be? Is it simply a reflection of the general society’s attitude toward the elderly? Keeping in mind that you will most likely be in their place someday, it’s time to reconsider how we treat older LGBT persons.
Shutting out the elderly is not only a problem in the LGBT community. Rather, it is reflective of society’s treatment of older people. As a society, we consider the elderly a burden and a group to be shunned. Instead of bringing older parents back into our homes, we place them in retirement homes and visit them periodically. Instead of seeking out friendships among the elderly, we prefer to look the other way.
Many elderly LGBT feel shut out, which can lead to a host of problems. Specifically, LGBT elders are a high risk population for depression, isolation, and alcohol and drug abuse. We make assumptions about most of the elderly, including that they are not productive, not sexual, and not happy.
However, in an article a few years ago in the Los Angeles Times, readers were challenged to reconsider their ideas about what it means to grow older. Many elderly folks noted they were deeply satisfied with their current lives. The same holds true for elderly LGBT persons.
For the LGBT elderly, those with the greatest amount of life satisfaction have many friends and loved ones, develop a sense of community, and feel productive and useful (interestingly, having a lot of money is lower on the list). Elderly people who report the highest quality of life also live for the moment (keeping one eye to the future), maintain a sense of balance in life, and live each day as fully as possible. Of course, there are important reminders to the rest of us. Considering their wealth of knowledge, we should be looking to elders for their wisdom, learning from their mistakes, and drawing from their strength.
One day, an older woman was standing in line at the store, and the clerk asked another clerk to “help the old lady.” She looked around to find the old woman, not realizing he could be referring to her. At the time, she was 85 years old. In her mind, she wasn’t an old lady – she was a person. And as a person, she couldn’t imagine he was talking about her. She filled her life with treasured moments and an active daily life, including regular vacations, until she died at 93.
The LGBT community is often at the forefront of social change, and we have the opportunity to be among the first to restore our elders to their rightful place in society. Since we as a society consider the elderly to be useless, we would necessarily need to start viewing them as useful.
Elders can be called upon for their experience, wisdom, and point of view. For example, each elder carries an oral history of life before Stonewall, when going to a gay bar or dancing with a member of the same sex could lead to arrest. Many can recall the McCarthy era and the witch hunts against “suspected homosexuals” and the Hollywood blacklist. Many have served in the armed forces during Korea and Vietnam – some even grew up during WWII. We can learn firsthand what it was like to be LGBT during those times.
For those of you who are in relationships or want to be in one in the future (I think that covers just about everyone), long term same-sex couples make excellent mentors and role models for younger couples. We can turn to them for guidance and to help us to solidify our relationships. They are able to tell us what has worked for them and can give us tools we may use for working through relationship problems.
The elderly tend not to “sweat the small stuff” when they reach their 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. That’s because they know what mortality feels like and they can put their lives in a much better perspective than their younger counterparts. We can go to them for the necessary reminder that time moves swiftly and that life is short. We can use that reminder as a way to improve the quality of our lives.
I’m hoping that we come around to the notion that elderly individuals are essential for our mental and emotional well-being, and that we will someday welcome their presence. If you agree, then for starters, when an older LGBT individual smiles at you as he or she is walking your way, smile back. We’ve rendered them invisible, and it’s our job to restore them to their honorable place as our mentors and friends.