For more than 50 million American adults over 65, finding long-term senior care can be an imposing task.
For the 2 million who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community, it can be even harder.
In addition to considering safety, affordability and comfort, LGBTQ+ seniors may face housing discrimination that hinders their ability to find proper care.
Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha is trying to change that.
In January, Hunt introduced LB 1136, which aims to address discrimination against seniors based on sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and HIV status.
The bill would prevent senior care facilities from denying admission based on any of these protected categories. Additionally, it would prohibit facilities from denying same-sex couples’ requests to be in the same room and require that staff use preferred names and pronouns when interacting with transgender residents.
“It kind of provides some recourse for people who feel that they have experienced discrimination, and it codifies and standardizes the expectation of care that we have for LGBTQ+ individuals,” Hunt said.
The Health and Human Services Committee discussed the bill at its hearing on Feb. 16. Supporters of the bill included Abbi Swatsworth of OutNebraska and Todd Stubbendieck, the director of AARP Nebraska. Becky Wisell of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services testified against the bill. Wisell said the bill would require the agency to hire additional staff to handle paperwork, oversight and inspections.
The committee did not take any immediate action
Nebraska is one of 27 states that does not have any law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, according to Hunt. Nationally, only 18% of senior care centers have policies in place to prevent this type of discrimination.
Hunt received the bill proposal from Heather Holmes, the founder and executive director of Owlish. Owlish is a nonprofit organization that advocates for LGBTQ seniors in Nebraska. Last year, as part of a project with the Omaha New Leaders Council, Holmes drafted the language of the proposal and brought it to Hunt.
Holmes, who has 16 years of senior care experience, said she has recognized a need to advocate for LGBTQ seniors through her work.
“Seventy-five percent of older gay adults go back into the closet when they need senior living help because they don’t feel like they can be their authentic self,” Holmes said. “They don’t feel like they can show up. There’s no diversity, equity or inclusion training in senior living.”
Michele Wagner, founder of Inspired Senior, agreed. Wagner worked in a senior care facility for seven years. Now, she runs Inspired Senior, a coaching business to aid family members who care for older adults.
“There is no training,” she said. “I don’t know if that’s a product of who owns the companies. If you have faith-based, conservative companies that are owning and running these facilities, that certainly could influence it, but there’s no training.”
Wagner said she wouldn’t anticipate pushback from senior care staff on the proposed bill.
“My opinion is that the people who are actually boots on the ground in the building will be supportive of it,” she said. “I think potentially some of the corporate level people – I don’t know if they would be against it, but I think they may just find it confusing. They may not be able to make the connection of how critically important this is in order to provide the care for the seniors in their building.”
For transgender or gender-noncomforming seniors, Hunt said denying the use of preferred names and pronouns can take a mental and emotional toll.
“The anxiety and depression that they experience can be debilitating–and we know that there’s an easy way to fix that,” she said. “Respect people. Call people by the name that they say they are. Use the pronouns that they want you to use. It costs nothing and it can have a really big impact on the health of another person.”
Holmes said these mental health effects can be compounded by other issues.
“I have a good friend in their sixties, and they’re a trans man and are scared to death,” Holmes said. “They’re so afraid that they won’t be called he/him and the preferred name. What does that care look like when you have dementia or you’re vulnerable or there’s no one there to advocate for you?”
According to Holmes, this proposal represents a combination of her two passions: senior care and LGBTQ+ advocacy.
“These are my values, and I care about people,” she said. ”You can either listen or not, but I’m not gonna go away.”
For Hunt and Holmes, who both identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community, this bill holds special significance. Hunt, who became Nebraska’s first openly LGBTQ+ senator in 2018, said she feels an obligation to fight for LGBTQ+ activists who came before her.
“For me, personally, it’s about supporting the people in older generations who’ve already put in the work and already fought so hard for people like me to have the right to be in the legislature,” she said. “I couldn’t even be here if not for the work of the generation before me.”
“This generation, they lived through Stonewall,” she said. “They’ve been discriminated against their whole lives.”
The Stonewall Riots, which occurred in June of 1969, are often considered to be the catalyst for the LGBTQ+ rights movement in the United States. LGBTQ+ baby boomers who came of age during this time are sometimes referred to as the ‘Stonewall Generation.’
In addition to honoring the past, Holmes wanted to pave the way for LGBTQ+ seniors in the future – including herself.
“I live here and I’m part of the community,” she said. “And when I’m 80, I dare someone to tell me I can’t sit with my wife, if I’m married at the time. I wanna be able to sit with them in the dining room when I’m 80.”