Today we are all adapting to the complications of COVID-19 and its impact on our daily life. As we abide by current “stay-at-home” orders, we are learning how this reality may affect others in our communities. Researchers have found that social isolation and the subsequent feelings of loneliness can be lethal. The AARP Foundation put some perspective on this when it announced that social isolation can cause similar health effects to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
While we are all experiencing some level of isolation, the difficulty truly is compounded for some at-risk communities. Perhaps these feelings are no greater than for our LGBTQ older adults, who already have a higher percentage of health issues (Williams Institute) that could lead to more serious risks from COVID-19. Their need for accessible connected technology may exceed those of other communities; a high-speed broadband connection to shop for groceries at home, communicate with healthcare providers without leaving home, and stay informed with news and information from the immediate community as well as broader public health updates.
The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed existing inequalities, and exacerbated struggles already present for vulnerable populations. Reports estimate that there are around 3 million LGBT adults over age 50, and by the end of this decade the number will grow to around 7 million. LGBT older individuals’ loneliness and isolation are compounded by several factors: they are twice as likely to live alone; four times less likely to have children; often confront discrimination and social stigma; and are more likely to face poverty and homelessness and be in poor health. The Williams Institute has revealed that older LGBT adults face social and health disparities in a number of critical areas, resulting in worse physical and mental health compared to heterosexual older adults.
The current economic conditions add another layer of stress to an already burdened community. While many have experienced financial hardship during this pandemic, LGBT people collectively have a poverty rate of 21.6%, which is much higher than the rate for the cisgender straight people of 15.7%.
All of these factors contribute to the health and wellbeing of the LGBTQ older adults during this COVID-19 pandemic. For all LGBTQ individuals, going online has always been a “must-do” activity. Research conducted by The LGBT Technology Partnership has revealed that 80% of LGBTQ respondents participate in a social networking site (such as Facebook, Instagram or Twitter) compared to 58% of the general public. Searching the internet for health information is particularly important for lesbians whose unique health needs are often overlooked.
The LGBTQ older community are a critical at-risk segment within the larger digital divide plaguing our aging population. With only a little over half of those age 65 who now have broadband at home (Pew Research), the opportunity for older “at risk” communities existing in isolation without a tech “lifeline” raises great concern.
We suggest that a multi-pronged approach is essential to serve this underserved community. First, the policy world needs to increase efforts to expand telehealth services, especially for older patients, to help combat the realities of the coronavirus.
Additionally, as the country moves to contact tracing it is vital to remember that any tech-heavy solution may have a disparate impact on seniors who may be less tech savvy than other populations.
Finally, support must be maintained and even increased to community and social organizations that target older LGBTQ individuals. Community centers, places of worship and social organizations that cater to this community need to receive special training, education and resources that can help protect this vulnerable population.
The COVID-19 virus will continue to affect each of us, but the increased vulnerability of our senior and LGBTQ communities requires unique strategies to ensure everyone stays as safe and healthy.
Carlos Gutierrez is Deputy Director & General Counsel for the LGBT Technology Partnership & Institute, which works to improve access, increase inclusion, ensure safety and empower entrepreneurship for LGBT communities around technology. Debra Berlyn is executive director of the Project to Get Older Adults onLine (Project GOAL) and president of Consumer Policy Solutions.