Ageism is hurtful to all older people, but it can be particularly devastating for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) elders. Not only do LGBT elders face ageism in the community at large, but they face marginalization within the LGBT community as well.
They are more likely to be cut off from families of origin, less likely to have children and far more likely than their straight peers to depend on a “family of choice” (a network of friends and lovers) rather than a biological family for care and support. While these families are just as caring and loving as biological families, caregiving can become difficult as members of a family of choice face disability and medical issues that come with aging at the same time as care-receivers.
However, a new report, Celebrating Intergenerational Diversity Among LGBT People by London’s International Longevity Centre (ILC), shows that creative efforts to bring LGBT youth and elders together can play a critical role in combatting the destructive impact of social isolation and ageism on LGBT elders. These efforts may help forge enduring new bonds that will dramatically improve the situation of LGBT elders and give LGBT youth a stronger sense of their community and history.
Stateside Intergenerational LGBT Programs
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Ageism within the LGBT Community
Even within the LGBT community, elders can often feel disconnected and invisible. “Creating opportunities for LGBT individuals to communicate across generations is crucial to breaking down the stereotypes and misconceptions that can leave some LGBT elders isolated from the larger LGBT community,” says professor Nancy Knauer of Temple University’s Beasley School of Law and author of Gay and Lesbian Elders: History, Law, and Identity Politics in the United States (Ashgate, 2011). “Integrating elders into the broader LGBT community is an important first step to breaking down these barriers to successful aging.”
There are some opportunities for intergenerational interaction in the LGBT community through the many LGBT churches and religious organizations, LGBT musical groups and political advocacy organizations. But, as researchers Glenda M. Russell and Janis S. Bohan described in their 2005 article, “The Gay Generation Gap: Communicating Across the LGBT Generation Divide,” many LGBT social activities tend to be age-segregated, and interactions that cross generations “must be arranged with the explicit intent of creating cross-generational interaction.”
Programs Connect Generations
The Longevity Centre report studied three intergenerational LGBT programs conducted between 2010 and 2011 and documented their success. The LGBT Centre in Leicester, U.K.—an industrial, urban community not known as an LGBT hub—trained youth to gather oral histories, and sent them into the community to interview elders.
According to the report, both the interviewers and interviewees appreciated the chance to tell their town’s stories. Their work led not only to the creation of a resource for historians, but also to an exhibit on LGBT history in the city.
The report also included a project in Camden—a part of North London on the edge of Soho that’s known for its extensive and active LGBT community—where youth and elders participated in workshops, challenging stereotypes and creating art in a variety of forms. One researcher commented that this arts project worked well because it provided a more comfortable environment for “people to reveal private emotions and thoughts in a less public way.”
The final program analyzed in the report was in Stockport, a struggling industrial town neighboring the strong LGBT community of Manchester. There, youth and elders joined forces in an innovative project to educate local service providers about the needs of the LGBT community. Participants learned how to perform a needs assessment, write and collect data through questionnaires, conduct a focus group and organize meetings between providers and clients. This ultimately led to the creation of an “LGBT toolkit” for service providers to help them provide culturally competent care.
Strategies to Ensure Success
Merely gathering younger and older LGBT people together doesn’t necessarily create a productive program. The report advises several ways to ensure everyone feels welcome: maintain roughly equal numbers of youth and elders; reach out to more isolated elders; encourage consistent attendance to help build camaraderie and trust; and match youth and elders with similar interests. These strategies aim to bring young and old together in authentic and meaningful ways.
The ILC report documented the three U.K. projects’ many positive results: the programs reduced age stereotypes, promoted confidence among youth and elders, introduced LGBT youth to positive older-age role models, raised awareness of LGBT history, built practical skills and gave young and old the opportunity to better understand each other’s lives and stories. The report reflects empirically what we’ve seen anecdotally in the Bay Area (see sidebar, below left)—that intergenerational work in the LGBT community has a powerfully positive effect on both youth and elders.
Daniel Redman is an attorney in the Elder Law Project of the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), San Francisco.
Editor’s Note: This article appears in the March/April, 2012, issue of Aging Today, ASA’s bi-monthly newspaper covering issues in aging research, practice and policy nationwide. ASA members receive Aging Today as a member benefit; non-members may purchase subscriptions at our online store.
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