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LGBT Healthy Aging Toolkit
October 2015 | Leland Kiang, LICSW
"Research shows that more than a third of older Americans report having some difficulty with living independently, walking, self-care, hearing, memory, or vision."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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