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Q & A: When Elders Come Out of the Closet

June 16, 2011 — By Marjorie Nesin —

Q & A: When Elders Come Out of the Closet

The following was submitted by Dan O'Leary of Mystic Valley Elder Services, Inc.:

Q. Recently, my elderly aunt came out to our family as a lesbian. She's in her 80s and a resident of an assisted-living facility in the Mystic Valley community. My family is committed to supporting her, but we're also concerned that she might suffer from prejudice and isolation now that she's open about her sexuality. Are there resources for older LGBT folks? Are there steps I can take to make sure my aunt doesn't suffer from discrimination?
A. I'm so glad to hear that your family is committed to supporting your aunt in her coming-out journey. For elders in particular, coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) can be a fraught process – not only because of life-long fears about society's prejudice, but also because elders often depend on others for their care. It's scary to think that the person who cares for you might be cruel or unforgiving about such an important part of your identity. Having your family's support will undoubtedly make a big difference for your aunt's emotional wellbeing.
I can understand why you worry, though. Nationally, LGBT elders face a number of challenges that other elders do not: access to basic healthcare can be difficult, especially for transgender elders. LGBT elders are less likely to have the same level of financial security as other elders, and are less likely to have family members to provide care or support. They also have fewer government protections.
At the same time, now more than ever, older LGBT folks are active and present in our community. AARP has just launched a brand new LGBT Pride section of its website that includes a large number of resources. The National Resource Center on LGBT Aging provides a vast array of resources on everything from mental health and racial equity to housing and legal support. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, an advocacy organization, has aging-specific resources available. And the world's oldest and largest advocacy organization for LGBT elders, SAGE, just opened an affiliate in Western Massachusetts. These organizations will give you plenty of reading material to start with.
It will also be important for your aunt and your family to educate yourselves about your aunt's legal rights and, if she has a partner, about her partner's rights. For instance, new federal regulations require hospitals to allow patients to designate their own visitors. This means that hospitals can no longer prevent LGBT patients' partners from visiting them. But other rights will be more complicated. Power of attorney, medical proxy, and inheritance laws, for instance, haven't yet caught up with us. I would strongly recommend that your family consult an elder attorney with experience in LGBT issues.
The vibrant and growing LGBT elder community in the Mystic Valley region should prevent your aunt from feeling isolated.  The LGBT Aging Project is a local non-profit organization “dedicated to ensuring that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender elders have equal access to the life-prolonging benefits, protections, services and institutions that their heterosexual neighbors take for granted.” They partner with elder service agencies to host special senior meals for LGBT elders in Roslindale (LBT women only), Salem, Cambridge, and Braintree. Other frequent activities include dances, concerts, lectures, and film screenings. Help your aunt locate some activities that feel comfortable and appealing to her. If you can, offer her transportation.
It will be essential that you figure out if your aunt's current assisted-living facility has policies surrounding the care and dignity of LGBT residents. Gen Silent, a recent documentary about Boston-area LGBT elders that I highly recommend, revealed that some elders have experienced mistreatment from caregivers due to their sexual identity. Ensure that your aunt's home has a clear grievance policy so that she can report any mistreatment. Encourage the home to take part in the LGBT Aging Project's Open Doors Task Force, a program training mainstream elder service providers to develop the institutional capacity to serve LGBT clients with dignity and respect.
And most importantly, listen to your aunt's story and her concerns. Then tell her that you love her, that you respect her, that you are proud to know her. And thank her for her bravery.


Mystic Valley Elder Services provides critical resources and home care assistance to elders, adults with disabilities, and caregivers living in Everett, Malden, Medford, Melrose, North Reading, Reading, Stoneham, and Wakefield, regardless of sexual identity. For more information about this topic or any elder-related issue, contact us at (781) 324-7705 or visit

"For elders in particular, coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) can be a fraught process – not only because of life-long fears about society’s prejudice, but also because elders often depend on others for their care."