Creative Health Care

Older LGBT community members are forcing the health care system to better serve their unique needs.

The increasing number of older LGBT adults who refuse to go back into the closet is having a profound effect on our nation’s health care system. At the federal level, LGBT seniors are recognized as a vulnerable population. The American Medical Association is preparing to gather data on LGBT health concerns and treatment.

Locally, senior-serving agencies in Dane County are being educated and influenced by my role as the LGBT Senior Advocate, which is funded by the City of Madison and Dane County through the OutReach LGBT Community Center. OutReach is training human service and medical students by hosting panel discussions at Madison College and the UW – Madison. PRIDE in HealthCare is a student and professional group helping to educate their cohort at University Hospitals and elsewhere.

Health care for LGBT seniors begins when we’re younger, so training at all levels of health care is important. What are the biggest concerns for older LGBT adults? Isolation, stress around life-long discrimination, HIV/AIDS as a chronic illness, a lifetime of inadequate health insurance, inadequate or neglected health care, and having lower incomes compared to heterosexual adults and married couples.

Alcohol and/or drug addiction and obesity are major health concerns for our population, as are mental health issues such as anxiety or depression. People surviving HIV/AIDS may suffer from guilt and depression. Years of smoking, being in smoke-filled places, or having poor diets make us prone to cancer.

While our relationships were not recognized, some of us survived violent, abusive behaviors from those we thought loved us. Others survived street violence or lost people we knew to murder motivated by hate. LGBT military personnel endured extreme stress, not only from the enemy but also from within their own “friendly” ranks.

Having had negative past experiences, some of us are rightfully fearful of being refused care by the medical establishment and the insurance industry. When some of us have fallen through the cracks of the medical system, how do we trust that we’ll receive the care we deserve now?

As a population, we are focusing on preventive health care and alternatives to keep ourselves out of the health care establishment for as long as possible. The LGBT population is becoming known for its resilience and accessing alternative health care.

OutReach has established a Share the Care program as a means to support each other when a major medical emergency arises or when there is a need for either short– or long-term care. Volunteers who operate this program are available to help you set up a group of friendly people you and/or your partner can trust. All you have to do is call (608) 255-8582 or click on Share the Care at OutReach’s website: www.lgbtoutreach.org.

Through my LGBT Senior Advocate role, OutReach is expanding its collaboration with other agencies. The Alzheimer’s/Dementia Alliance received funding recently from the New Harvest Foundation to set up LGBT-specific support groups. They are always looking for volunteer drivers to transport Dane County residents to medical appointments.

In addition to opening The Gardens retirement housing to LGBT seniors, our recent contact with Independent Living, Inc. (ILI) is focused on their Home Share program, which matches those in need with a roommate. This is an exceptional option for adults who are not comfortable living alone anymore and adults who would like an affordable place to live.

After a small application fee, two prospective parties go through a background screening and then participate in an interview with each other. ILI provides ongoing support to assure success.

We are considering if the program could be reversed: a middle-aged individual or couple could take in a senior and provide care or support on a short-term basis after a surgery procedure or while a senior is in a housing transition. We also think this program might be helpful for LGBT people who are temporarily homeless.

ILI provides a variety of services and is always looking for volunteers. They provide background checks and training for all volunteers. Volunteer services include telephone reassurance, friendly visiting, and Kibble on Wheels. Volunteers with Kibble on Wheels deliver free pet food and supplies to low-income pet owners.

If you’re a senior or a young adult interested in participating in the Home Share program or in other volunteer opportunities through Independent Living, Inc., you can email Margo Fochs at mfochs@independentlivinginc.org. Because this is a joint program, I would appreciate it if you would contact me as well and indicate to Margo that you are LGBT or an ally and are volunteering to support LGBT individuals as well as anyone else working with their program.  My email address is: carolw@lgbtoutreach.org or call (608) 255-8582.


Caroline Werner has a master’s degree in social work and did case management with Dane County seniors before retiring. She is a part-time LGBT senior advocate for the OutReach LGBT Community Center.