From the Philadelphia Gay News

January 14, 2016

By David Griffith

The year 2015 clearly saw tremendous advances for the LGBT community. From marriage equality to representation in politics and the media, the past 12 months have been a time of progress. While 2015 was undoubtedly an important year, events that will transpire in 2016 at the national, state and local levels may have an even greater impact on how LGBT older adults will be supported as they age.

Let’s start at the national level, where we expect the big story of the year to be the 2016 presidential election. Issues relevant to older adults will be center stage as we move closer to November. Seemingly every election cycle brings up calls to abolish the current Medicare system or to overhaul Social Security, and this year is no different. Some current candidates have pledged to expand Social Security while others have vowed to privatize it. Some envision slimming down Medicaid and phasing out Medicare, while others prioritize strengthening these programs.

Lifetime experiences of discrimination in housing, employment and access to benefits have resulted in LGBT older adults experiencing high rates of financial strain. This systemic discrimination has left LGBT elders disproportionately reliant on entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security. Any changes made to these entitlement programs by the next administration will therefore disproportionately affect LGBT older adults.

Given the aging of the Baby Boomer generation, the next administration will have some very real decisions to make around the topics of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Other issues relevant to LGBT seniors — such as prescription drug costs, funding for Alzheimer’s research and LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination laws — will also look very different depending on who holds the White House come January 2017.

While the presidential election will dominate the news cycle in 2016, equally big issues for LGBT older adults are brewing at the state level. Every four years, the Pennsylvania Department of Aging prepares its State Plan on Aging. The State Plan serves as the Department of Aging’s blueprint for serving the commonwealth’s older-adult population, identifying priorities for enhancing programs, delivering services and allocating resources.

The last State Plan was completed in 2012, mapping out the Department of Aging’s agenda up through 2016. Despite the efforts of LGBT activists across Pennsylvania, the 2012-16 Pennsylvania State Plan on Aging made no mention of LGBT older adults. Thus, aging-services providers have received no direction from the state on making their services inclusive to LGBT individuals. Providers within the aging-services network have received no cultural-competence resources from the state related to working with LGBT populations. No data has been collected on the sexual orientations or gender identities of people accessing aging services, meaning that LGBT older adults have not been taken into account when the state allocated funds, developed outreach strategies or prioritized services.

This year, Gov. Wolf’s administration will create its first State Plan on Aging and set a new course for the delivery of aging services in Pennsylvania. The inclusion of LGBT older adults in this 2016-20 Pennsylvania State Plan on Aging is imperative if Pennsylvania’s aging-services network is going to improve services for LGBT people. The 2016-20 State Plan provides great opportunity for the commonwealth to improve the LGBT cultural competence of aging services, update data-collection methods to include sexual orientation and gender identity and increase resource allocation toward underserved LGBT communities.

Additionally, each of the 52 Area Agencies on Aging funded by the Pennsylvania Department of Aging, tasked with delivering services to seniors at the county level, will develop their own 2016-20 Plans on Aging as well. These Area Plans on Aging will have similar purposes as the State Plan on Aging, strategically outlining county-specific needs and priorities for the next four years.

Similar to state-level planning, the needs of LGBT older adults have often been overlooked in these Area Plans (though thankfully have been included in Philadelphia). The inclusion of LGBT older adults in Area Plans in additional counties will be essential in order to develop the financial, health and social supports needed by LGBT people to age successfully in all counties of Pennsylvania.

Given the importance of aging in the local, state and national dialogue this year, the voices of LGBT older adults and their advocates must be heard. Decisions made in 2016 will have a long-lasting impact on the service landscape for LGBT older adults. If we plan on continuing the momentum of LGBT progress made in 2015, it’s time to turn our attention to LGBT aging in 2016.

David Griffith is the director of programs and outreach for the LGBT Elder Initiative. To comment on this article, contact the LGBT Elder Initiative at 215-720-9415 or info@lgbtei.org.