A few years ago, Rabbi Sara Paasche-Orlow was spending time with, and comforting, a friend who was dying of cancer. Along with all of the usual difficulties and complexities of end-of-life care, there was an additional concern for the friend. Despite being married to her lesbian partner, she didn’t feel like she could be open about it with the hospice worker.
“When hospice came in, I couldn’t stay next to her in the bed,” the friend told Paasche-Orlow, “I had to separate myself. I had to pretend I was something I wasn’t.”
Although Paasche-Orlow never learned the exact reason for the discomfort, her friend’s reluctance to reveal her sexual identity is widespread among non-heterosexual senior citizens in long-term care. A recent national survey of this population by the National Resource Center on LGBT Aging—which provides support and services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender elders—found that the respondents were frequently mistreated by care-center staff, including cases of verbal and physical harassment, as well as refusal of basic services. Some respondents reported being prayed for and warned they might “go to hell” for their sexual orientation or gender identity.
In Paasche-Orlow’s case, her friend’s statement haunted her so much that she launched a series of programs to help long-term-care residents and staff members deal with the barriers to care for LGBT seniors—and the health disparities that may result. Her aim is to guard these seniors from being forced back into the closet as they age.