Staying out of the closet: Reaching out to LGBT seniors

By Regina Salmi, Area Agency on Aging of Western Michigan


Over the past few years, our society’s acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people has changed rapidly, particularly with the Supreme Court decision around marriage. We have openly gay people as neighbors, friends, grandchildren, children, service professionals — over the past 20 years, LGBT people have become steadily more visible in our society. While society has taken great strides toward acceptance of LGBT citizens, what remains invisible are the issues and challenges that LGBT elders face as begin to require services.

There are currently about 1.5 million people age 65+ who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual. According to SAGE, an Advocacy and Services Organization for LGBT Elders, poverty rates among LGBT elders is higher than their heterosexual counterparts, mainly due to past employment discrimination, conflict with family over coming out, and a lack of marriage and Social Security survivor benefits.

There are also many aging LGBT people who live alone, without family to help with the aging process. This puts many LGBT seniors in the position of requiring income-based aging services available in their communities. Needing to ask for help though is often a difficult experience for these seniors.

Unlike younger LGBT people, many of our LGBT seniors lived through times in our history when lesbians and gays were put in jail or mental institutions if it was discovered they were gay. Kendrick Heinlein, Contract Administrator with Area Agency on Aging of Western Michigan stated, “These experiences of hostility are not always easily removed from LGBT senior’s memories. This lends itself to seniors not seeking medical services available to them which can lead to social isolation, chronic illness and premature death.”

Even today, older adults who are LGBT don’t often find a warm welcome when they begin to participate in aging services. Because many seniors don’t want to “go back into the closet”, they will avoid asking for help, which frequently ends in a health crisis.


“I have heard countless stories of LGBT seniors putting away pictures of their loved ones or hiding things in their homes due to the fear of being discriminated against by their in-home caretakers” Heinlein said. “There are stories of care providers refusing to work with LGBT older adults because they do not feel comfortable. Senior retirement or care facilities have refused services to LGBT seniors because of their religious views or moral beliefs. All of these events are not typical things that heterosexual older adults have to experience.”


This is why organizations like SAGE, the AARP and Area Agency on Aging of Western Michigan are working to reach out to LGBT seniors as well as service providers.

Area Agency on Aging of Western Michigan is partaking in a two-year project, funded by the Michigan Health Endowment Fund; Heinlein is heading up this project for the agency. The goal is to reduce the isolation LGBT seniors experience and improve the care provided to older adults who identify as LGBT.


“AAAWM is in the process building relationships with the local LGBT community,” Heinlein said. “We are also working to identify LGBT-affirming health service providers for older adults. We will be able to direct LGBT seniors to these service providers when they call AAAWM or visit our website.”


‘Gen Silent’ subject Krys Anne Hembrough

Ultimately, Area Agency on Aging of Western Michigan plans to develop a ‘How-To’ manual to share with other Area Agencies on Aging through the state, so LGBT elders always have a resource to locate services.

Area Agency on Aging of Western Michigan is not the only agency working to improve the aging climate for LGBT seniors. Agencies throughout Kent County are working to integrate LGBT seniors into the aging community.


Heinlein explained, “The Alzheimer’s Association has a LGBT support group which meets once a month to talk about any questions/issues that they see in the aging community. Samaritas Senior Living is having a viewing of the film Gen Silent, which examines the discrimination and fears LGBT seniors experience. I will host a discussion afterwards for everyone to share their thoughts about the aging LGBT community. Dr. Grace Huizinga, Assistant Professor from Grand Valley State University, will be helping lead the discussion at Samaritas as well.”


The film and discussion will take place on July 11th from 6–8:30 pm and is open to the public.


If you’d like to learn more about this project, contact Area Agency on Aging of Western Michigan at 888.456.5664 or email To learn about their services you can visit their website: