[ Last year, I was honored to be named one of Next Avenue’s 2017 Influencers in Aging. Subsequently, I was invited to write an article for that website about the one thing I would like to change about aging in America. This is the article I wrote in response to that question. Reprinted with permission from NextAvenue.org. ]
Over the past few decades, employers have become attuned to the need to provide workplaces that are more welcoming of career-oriented women and diverse people. Corporate America and academia implemented policies and training programs fostering inclusion for employees of various races, nationalities, religions and physical abilities, as well as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) people who wanted to be able to live and work more openly. While the diversity movement may have been initially driven by legal compliance, it soon became clear that it was the right thing to do.
The More Diverse Workforce Will Soon Become More Diverse Retirees
Now, the oldest people in the Baby Boomer generation are entering their 70s, which means they’re starting to enter the nation’s independent living, assisted living and skilled nursing homes. Generally speaking, however, these facilities have lagged behind the diversification trends. Many are not prepared to provide welcoming environments to residents from a variety of orientations, religions and ethnic backgrounds.
Simply demonstrating compliance with federal, state, and local fair housing laws does not guarantee that the environment inside senior residences will be welcoming for all people. Creating an inclusive environment requires the will to do so.
The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force estimates that 3 million LGBT elders live in the United States, and that number will double by 2030. Clearly, this signals a demand for LGBTQ-friendly senior housing. Add to that the growing number of people in other diverse demographics, such as Muslims, Hindi, Buddhists and people from China, India, the Middle East and Latin America, and it becomes clear that America’s independent living, assisted living and skilled nursing homes need to step up their diversity competency to meet the needs of today’s retirees.
Just as corporate America learned that it was good business practice to make workplaces more inclusive, the senior housing industry needs to learn that welcoming diverse retirees is not only good business practice, it is the right thing to do on behalf of its residents.
Older LGBTQ People Face Additional Challenges
LGBTQ elders, in particular, fear being ostracized and mistreated in senior residences. Many wonder if they will have to return to the closet after having fought for workplace, legal and social equality for much of their adult lives.
To make matters worse, sexual orientation and gender identity are protected classes in fair housing laws in only 21 states, Washington, D.C. and a patchwork of local jurisdictions. Of course, discrimination is often covert and difficult to prove.
In a study conducted by the Equal Rights Center in Washington, testers made matched-pair phone calls to 200 senior-living facilities in 10 states, posing as either gay or straight couples. In almost half of the cases, the same-sex couples received less favorable information than that presented to opposite-sex couples for things like unit availability, pricing and fees, financial incentives, amenities and application requirements.
Equality is Not a Piece of Cake
A case currently awaiting a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, challenges Colorado’s public accommodations law which prohibits businesses serving the public from discriminating against people based on their sexual orientation or other characteristics. The plaintiffs claim that since the First Amendment protects their right to free exercise of religion, they are entitled to refuse service to others of whom they disapprove.
A ruling in favor of Masterpiece Cakeshop would render existing fair housing laws unenforceable. It could easily pave the way for legal denial of senior housing services for LGBT older adults, or any other minority that a person or institution’s asserted religious beliefs would preclude them from accommodating.
Training in Diversity Competency is Needed
SAGECare, a division of Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE) — the nation’s largest organization dedicated to improving the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender older adults — offers senior residential facilities and service providers training and consulting on LGBT aging issues. But of the approximately 45,800 nursing homes and residential care facilities in the United States, only 54 have completed SAGECare’s training. Of those, only 12 mention this on their websites.
Aside from this scant list, LGBT seniors have no reliable way to identify places where they can expect to live the rest of their lives in a comfortable environment.
What can senior living providers do to create living environments that are more welcoming of all people?
- Implement policies that clearly state that all residents must be treated equally and with dignity
- Implement training programs (such as the SAGECare program) for staff members that increase their competency in recognizing and accommodating the unique needs of various diverse populations, especially in the areas of religion, sexual orientation, and gender identity
- Offer programs and activities for residents that celebrate more diverse cultures — having a Christmas party for residents is fine, but it’s important to offer special events and meals that reflect other traditions as well
- Update websites and promotional brochures to include steps taken to create an environment that is welcoming of everyone, and pictures that reflect the diversity of residents
What can individuals do to encourage senior living homes to embrace diversity?
When you tour a home, observe the demographic characteristics of the people you see. Ask which types of programs are offered for residents of different backgrounds. Ask if the home has any Asian residents, LGBT residents, or Muslim residents, for example.
If you receive a vague answer, such as “all people are welcome here” or “we comply with all state and federal laws,” chances are good that the home has done little to embrace diversity.
Changes to federal laws usually come long after society has recognized the need for such changes. Mere compliance with the letter of the law does not ensure that a home is welcoming of diverse residents. Change will come when the customers who need senior housing services demand it.
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Photo credit: National Guard Officers Association & Enlisted National Guard Association of Florida. Some rights reserved.