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Adding a Piece to the Puzzle: LGBT Aging Community Surveys
posted 11.19.2012

By Cathy Croghan and Brian de Vries 

More Blog Posts in This Series...

Tracking LGBT Aging in the Twin Cities
By Cathy Croghan

Grandparenting as an LGBT Older Adult
By Nancy Orel

Aging Out: Exploring Ageism and Heterosexism Among African American Lesbians and Gay Males 
By Imani Woody 

Results and Implications of the St. Louis LGBT Older Adults Needs Assessment
By Meghan Jenkins Morales

In an ideal world, accurate data inform advocacy, policy, program and service development, further research, and ultimately promote successful aging opportunities for all. Sadly, this utopia does not apply to LGBT elders. Sexual orientation and-or gender identity do not appear as categories in the Census, nor in any federal data, so we have very little national knowledge about LGBT older persons, even basic demographic information—information that is a prerequisite for community investments by policymakers and service providers. Such absence of a thorough knowledge base results in little program and policy investment, leading to compromised opportunities for successful aging. Knowledge is power, and it’s missing when it comes to the LGBT populace.

Over the past two decades, advocates across North America have understood this and organized their communities to generate the missing information. But counting a difficult-to-characterize population such as the LGBT community is beyond the capabilities of most local community advocates. Several scholars and organizations have attempted to estimate this number, as summarized in the Institute of Medicine’s 2011 The Health of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People. In the absence of an actual count, these figures can help local advocates.

However, beyond a headcount, what can we tell the decision-maker about the LGBT community? Sharing results of surveys conducted elsewhere may not make a convincing case for allocating local resources. This is where community needs assessments have made a difference. Local data flesh out details and tells stories. They make the LGBT older adults in a community real. Many of the resulting reports have been used to great effect locally, but few have been published in venues with an extended reach. And volunteers have done most of the work with little or no funding.

We are working on a compilation of such projects we believe will reach a broad and interested audience and honor the efforts that produced them. These reports serve as a source of lessons learned in the field, and a patchwork of needs and issues of LGBT elders across the country. The compilation will be published in a special issue of the Journal of Homosexuality in 2013 and includes nine papers: four papers from the East (Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C.), four from the Midwest (Chicago, Bowling Green and surrounding areas, St. Louis, and the twin cities of Minneapolis–St. Paul), and one from the West (Palm Springs area). Several are close renderings of the original reports that were distributed locally, but most probe the data sets to further explore details about specific research questions.  

These reports speak to some of the basic demographic realities of LGBT elders: they are more likely to be single, live alone, and less likely to have children. They also point to health conditions that predominate the samples of LGBT older persons, their unique and creative, but not always sufficient, forms and experiences of LGBT social support, and the omnipresent role of stigma. These reports address some of the many issues that serve to limit opportunities for optimal aging among LGBT persons, while simultaneously suggesting ways in which lives as “outsiders” have led to organic and creative pathways to aging.

Like almost all LGBT aging survey work, the nine reports included in this compilation use convenience samples and often show a difficulty in gathering an adequate number of responses from smaller segments of the LGBT community (transgender individuals, heterosexuals, racial and ethnic minorities). Most rely on recruitment through LGBT community organizations, which by definition result in samples representing individuals who are less isolated and more out—at least out enough to be reached by an LGBT community organization. And, more recently, surveys are being conducted online. This greatly reduces the cost of data collection, but limits responses to those with Internet access. Since most local surveys are done with little or no funding, we will probably see more online instruments, perhaps supplemented by paper surveys sent to those lacking computer access.

Other significant challenges of community survey work include the lack of a standard set of questions, as proposed by the Institute of Medicine. Further, the dynamic nature of sexual orientation and gender identity and the associated legal protections that vary from state to state—even year to year—make drafting strong and enduring survey questions that much more demanding. Asking the relationship status of an individual may sound straightforward, but a gay married Iowan who has recently moved to Missouri (a state that doesn’t recognize same sex marriage) may be unsure of his status. Although all survey research calls for precision, the current environment surrounding LGBT culture and politics demands an added level of caution.

Notwithstanding these limitations, and given the absence of federal data, LGBT community surveys have played an important role in developing an understanding LGBT aging. They have helped policymakers and decision-makers recognize their local LGBT constituents. Having a data set in hand, limited as all will be, makes it easier for advocates to start conversations with decision-makers.     

Accompanying this post are four short articles that describe how needs assessment survey data were used locally (Cathy Croghan) as well as how they can be used to examine larger LGBT questions such as grandparenting (Nancy Orel), African American aging (Imani Woody) and the contrasting life experiences of the baby boomer and silent generation cohorts (Meghan Morales Jenkins). 

Until recently, with the exception of MetLife’s Still Out, Still Aging study and the Aging and Health Report, almost all data about LGBT aging have been gathered in local LGBT aging needs assessments, such as the surveys that provided the samples for these studies. The appearance of national data sets might suggest that local needs assessments have run their course. However, until questions about sexual orientation and gender identity become regular demographic components of national surveys, including the U.S. Census, local surveys will continue to play an important role in developing an understanding of LGBT aging.


Cathy Croghan, M.S., M.P.H., R.N., is a geriatric community health consultant and researcher in Minneapolis–St. Paul, Minn. She also serves as chairperson on the Training to Serve Board of Directors. Contact her at crogh001@umn.edu.

Brian de Vries, Ph.D., is professor of Gerontology at San Francisco State University. He has served on the board of ASA and is past co-Chair of LAIN. He was a member of the panel on the Health of Minority Populations within the IOM producing the report listed above. 

This article was brought to you by the editorial committee of ASA’s LGBTQ Aging Issues Network (LAIN).

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