Tackling Social Isolation Among Seniors and Issues of LGBTQ Cultural Competency in Long-Term Care Facilities

On Wednesday, September 26th2018, I attended the Office of the District of Columbia Long-Term Care Ombudsman’s (DCLTCOP) Annual Fall Forum held at the AARP Foundation. The Forum met to discuss Social Isolation among seniors and the importance of LGBTQ cultural competency within healthcare and social service professionals. I sat among a multitude of nurses, social workers, and representatives from long-term care organizations, all of which were passionate about improving the life of senior citizens.

The panel on Social Isolation included Lynda Flowers, senior policy advisor at the AARP Public Policy Institute, and Shahab Kaviani, director of the AARP Foundation’s Social Connectedness Innovations. Firstly, the presenters detailed the detrimental biological effects of social isolation, including, a higher risk of heart disease, infections, and premature cognitive decline. I was shocked to learn that suffering from social isolation can be equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day! The gravity of this situation is not only evident in the health of individual senior citizens, but also in its impact of 6.7 billion dollars per year Medicare spending. The reality is that seniors who are socially isolated are more likely to use skilled nursing facilities and stay longer at inpatient care. Stigma surrounding social isolation might also cause seniors to stay quiet about how they’re feeling. It is of utmost importance that private-public partnerships work together to identify seniors at risk and implement interventions.

The  AARP has developed and is implementing several key innovations in order to bridge the divide among seniors and their community, including, having volunteers call seniors on the phone, teaching seniors to use the Amazon Alexa, and offering free Lyft rides to chronically ill patients.  The future for seniors suffering from Social Isolation looks bright, but relies on de-stigmatization and effective evidence-based programs.

The second half of the forum discussed the unique social challenges and health disparities facing LGBTQ seniors, including discrimination and mistreatment by providers, caregivers, and other residents in long-term care facilities. Fear of retaliation may even force some seniors back into the closet, increasing risk of isolation and depression. The forum participants stressed the importance of sensitivity training for staff and listening to the specific needs of this population. My thoughts are that with increased health provider education, continued tackling of stigma, and elimination of discriminatory policies within facilities, LGBTQ seniors will finally be able to age safely in their community.

-Guadalupe Suarez, Intern