Aging can be a challenge for any community. But the lives of LGBTQ+ older adults bring distinct challenges. It is estimated that 4.3% of the adult population of Illinois identify as LGBTQ+. The Illinois Department on Aging’s (IDoA) mission is to provide high-quality, person-centered care to all older Illinoisans, and support efforts to empower older adults and caregivers in remaining independent, connected, and aging well. However, LGBTQ+ older Illinoisans face a unique set of challenges that are not yet widely understood or addressed in our society, and the numbers of LGBTQ+ older adults are difficult to track.
As a 2009 Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame Inductee, 2019 SAGE Pioneer Award winner, and now IDoA Director, it has been a priority of mine to enhance our data collection efforts and create a welcoming, safe, and LGBTQ+-affirming space among IDoA’s service providers to encourage honesty and trust so that clients can be their authentic selves.
The face of aging is really growing much more diverse - at a faster rate than anybody realizes. LGBTQ+ older adults are often invisible in aging service demographics, resulting in an inability to evaluate the effectiveness of existing services, and inefficient planning for future programmatic expansions. In addition, LGBTQ+ older adults have often lived through discrimination, social stigma, and the effects of prejudice, resulting in poor health outcomes and greater risk for chronic illnesses and mental illnesses.
In terms of the issues facing LGBTQ+ older adults in Illinois, the biggest hurdle is them being able to access services like getting a homemaker, meals on wheels, and/or going to their local senior center, since some people might be anti-LGBTQ+.
Because of this, IDoA will now soon include LGBTQ+ identity questions in all of our referral and intake processes. Specifically, when an individual calls the IDoA Senior HelpLine and completes the referral and intake process for services under the Community Care Program (CCP), the questions asked as part of the demographics section will now include how the individual identifies their sexual orientation and gender identity.
Like all demographic questions, the gender identity and sexual orientation questions are completely optional and allow for an older adult to self-disclose. However, collecting this data is essential as we learn more about LGBTQ+ older Illinoisans and develop a person-centered plan of care that fits everyone.
The services provided by our 13 Area Agencies on Aging (our contracted regional providers in the state) are diverse, and not all of the culturally competent services and supports we offer are available in every area, but all are working to make sure that Illinois continues to be a leader and an example for other states to follow when it comes to LGBTQ+ older adult inclusion in aging programming.
To that end, at the end of January 2020, IDoA hosted a mandatory webinar for all of our Area Agencies on Aging, as well as our 45 Care Coordination Units (collectively called our Aging Network). The webinar explained the terms lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, examined why LGBTQ+ older adults may hide their identity when accessing aging network services, as well as how to incorporate LGBTQ+ concerns into person-directed care and connect to local and national resources.
I am proud to say that more than 25% of the staff at our provider agencies -- and all of our IDoA staff -- participated in the webinar, earning the Illinois Aging Network the SAGECare Bronze credential. The SAGECare credential reflects our ongoing commitment to providing culturally competent care and fostering a welcoming environment for LGBTQ+ older adults, and it offers prospective clients the reassurance that our management and staff have been trained in working with LGBTQ+ people.
I know I don’t just speak for IDoA when I say we are constantly seeking ways to improve the care we provide. I encourage others in the aging network to become SAGECare credentialed providers as one step toward ensuring that we, as a national network, are meeting the needs of all of the people we serve. The National Resource Center on LGBT Aging offers webinars and training, as well as links to SAGECare training, through which organizations can qualify for the credential. Some of the SAGECare trainings are free to AAAs, state units on aging, and other organizations in ACL’s aging and disability networks.
It is incredible to see the trajectory from Stonewall 50 years ago to where we are today, but there is still so much work to do. IDoA is committed to supporting all our older Illinoisans with diverse programs and services, and we look forward to continuing to strengthen our outreach and education efforts as we help every LGBTQ+ older adult successfully age with dignity and respect. We owe it to our elders to respect yesterday, support today, and plan for tomorrow.