December 18, 2013
Fighting the Good Fight Against Isolation
By: Dr. Imani Woody

As we advance in life it becomes more and more difficult, but in fighting the difficulties the inmost strength of the heart is developed. Vincent van Gogh

W., 66, a former journalist and man about town, entered the meeting on LGBT issues a little late and his gait was slower than usual. When the meeting ended, he asked for a ride to the subway. As we rode, he talked about why he was late: not knowing the bus routes for this part of the city, the bus being late and the neighborhood being less than desirable. He hadn’t been feeling well and almost didn’t come to the meeting. It occurred to me that this African American elder continues to “fight the good fight” to beat the isolation that can plague us as we age and attended the meeting anyway.

Isolation is one of the great robbers of an enriched quality of life for older adults across the spectrum of race/ethnicity, class, religion, national origin, familial status, disability, gender identity, or sexual orientation. Self-imposed isolation related to aging can include an unwillingness or inability to drive, limited transportation options, chronic ailments and disabilities, lack of events for their peer group, the lack of compatriots and a youth oriented culture.

LGBT people, unlike their heterosexual counterparts, are often challenged with automatic prejudices and attitudes that affect and predict the subtle behavior of people towards others who are not considered part of the mainstream society. Many LGBT elders state that they no longer go to clubs or other social venues because of the “stares, and unkind comments,” the perception of being the oldest person in the room, or finding oneself surrounded by people with whom she or he has nothing in common.

Moreover, disparities in health care and economic inequality can add to a sense of isolation and alienation. Examples can be found in the medical care and treatment of Black people and in the lack of accessibility to safe and affordable housing for LGBT people. Data supports that people who are LGBT are more at risk to withdraw, to become (or remain) closeted, to experience depression, to become homeless, and to commit suicide than their self-identified heterosexual counterparts.

We can do a better job of building environments AND creating settings that promote LGBT elder inclusion and participation. Places that intentionally create and maintain a sense of belonging – where elders who are LGBT feel included and safe from ridicule, being ostracized, possible physical harm can decrease isolation. Recommendations include holding meetings in the daytime, providing transportation options (near bus/subway stops, carpooling), arranging meetings in “those” neighborhoods and not necessarily “downtown”, and ensuring the place is a physically acceptable (no stairs/ramps) space going in.

We must make it easy for people like W. to continue to “fight the good fight” against isolation and win.

Dr. Imani Woody is the CEO of Mary’s House for Older Adults, Inc. and the SAGE Metro DC representative to SAGENet – SAGE’s network of local affiliates around the country – that work to reduce isolation, improve financial security and enhance quality of life for LGBT older adults. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.