“At least someone knows I’m alive.”
Karen Fredriksen Goldsen read that line on a survey form and knew she was onto something. For the past 10 years, the University of Washington professor of social work and researcher has been conducting the first, national longitudinal study of aging members of the LGBTQ community called Aging with Pride.
Two years ago, survey data showed that older, married LGBTQ adults were happier and healthier than their single peers.
Fredriksen Goldsen’s survey showed that more than one-third of respondents were single and isolating themselves — so much so that their lives might be in danger.
“Social isolation is a public health issue,” said Fredriksen Goldsen, who is also director of the Healthy Generations Hartford Center of Excellence at the university in Seattle. Research has shown that social isolation puts people at a greater risk of heart disease, dementia and memory loss, and premature mortality. She compared it to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Last month, Fredriksen Goldsen announced plans for an April 25 lecture at the Frye Museum Auditorium in Seattle called “Linking Lives: Disrupting the Cycle of Social Isolation.” It sold out in a day, a fact she takes to mean that loneliness isn’t just an LGBTQ problem.
“What we learn from this population is similar to all other adults,” Fredriksen Goldsen said. “And I’m glad people are interested because learning about these things can be the first step to making change.”
Self-reliant, yet vulnerable
The problem of social isolation is intensified for marginalized populations like the LGBTQ community, whose older members have experienced social exclusion in less tolerant times and places; couldn’t get married until several years ago; may have been discouraged from parenting; and couldn’t always speak freely about their relationships.
Life has prepared them to keep to themselves.
All senior citizens are at risk for isolation and loneliness, but it is worse for LGBTQ people, especially as they age. Perhaps they have to move to a retirement or assisted-living community, Fredriksen Goldsen said. Rather than expose who they are, some slip back into the closet and close the door behind them.
This may make them self-reliant, she said. “But that also makes you vulnerable. It’s a barrier to asking for help.”
For the past decade, Fredriksen Goldsen has surveyed 2,450 LGBTQ people between the ages of 50 and 102 on an every-other-year basis.
“They want to share their life experience in order to improve aging and lifestyle in this community,” she said.
That’s how she discovered that older, married LGBTQ adults experience better physical and mental health, more social support and greater financial resources than those who were single. Her findings made international news.
Two years later, Fredriksen Goldsen has found that more than 55 percent of LGBTQ elders live alone. Sixty-four percent have experienced discrimination or been victimized three times in their lives — verbal insults, threats of physical assault, hassles by police, physical violence. Astonishingly, more than 25 percent reported being threatened at work.
Bringing resources together
The city has been focused on the needs of the tidal wave of tech workers that hit about five years ago. But even they can appreciate the data that shows others need attention, too.
“I feel like we have to figure out what we want, to get the data and build it,” Fredriksen Goldsen said. “We have to demonstrate that elders are an important resource with data, and action. Data creates possibilities. Action generates change.”
To that end, Fredriksen Goldsen has founded a nonprofit LGBTQ senior center on Capitol Hill in Seattle called the GenPride Center, which provides community and activities for older LGBTQ people.
The City of Seattle just awarded GenPride $200,000 to develop nutrition, recreation and socialization programs. The plan is to partner with senior centers all over the area and include UW students, young people and professionals in the work.
“I want to help build an elder-friendly Seattle,” Fredriksen Goldsen said. “It’s not just LGBTQ, it’s all elders. We have to think about cross-generational interventions and solutions, and demonstrate that elders are an important resource.”
It’s not just numbers on a page, or painful words on a survey form, she said.
“This is a call to action.”