According to a 2016 Gallup survey, 4.1% of U.S. adults openly identify as LGBTQ, or around 10 million adults. Of that 4.1%, 2.4% are Baby Boomers (born 1945 to 1964), and 1.4% Traditionalists (born 1913-1945). And in order to be able to provide holistic care to LGBTQ patients, it’s important to recognize that LGBTQ individuals have specific medical, psychological, and social needs. They are more likely to experience mental health problems, due to a number of social stressors including prejudice, stigmatization, anti-gay violence, and internalized homophobia. Many are susceptible to depression, suicide, and substance abuse. And many face isolation, and difficulty accessing resources and appropriate care.
On the flipside, LGBTQ individuals are more likely to have an advance directive completed as a legal safeguard to their wishes, and are likely to have “chosen” or “lavender” families and strong community ties, and highlight the importance of including these individuals in developing a support system.
To begin to provide holistic care to LGBTQ patients, it is important to have basic cultural competency on LGBTQ people and their historical and contemporary experiences in healthcare. Though some strides have been made in incorporating LGBTQ cultural competency in healthcare training, much can be done in executing these findings in practice. And it is very important to remember that small steps can quickly translate into big steps—starting with the basic challenges that LGBTQ patients face at the end-of-life.
Anticipating discrimination, and going “back into the closet”
Though strides have been made in fostering acceptance of and earning equal rights for the LGBTQ people, historical trauma and ongoing discrimination strongly color LGBTQ lives today. And for LGBTQ elders who lived in a period of less social acceptance, and harbor a lifetime of discrimination and negative healthcare experiences, an expectation of prejudice on the basis of their sexuality may not only detract from holistic care, but also prevent them from obtaining care in the first place.
Some feel that hospice and palliative care are not services available that are available to them, and will not understand or meet their needs as they relate to sexual orientation or gender identity. Some anticipate receiving worse treatment than their straight and gender-conforming peers. And some feel that they must go “back into the closet” in order to protect themselves from the hostility of hospital or assisted living staff and patients. And transgender individuals’ wishes to be recognized and die as their preferred gender are often disrespected.
Disclosure of sexual and gender identity can aid in providing sensitive and appropriate care, and augment the patient-provider relationship. It can also help identify potential challenges and ways to better support a patient and their loved ones. Though disclosure is ultimately up to the patient, providers need to actively foster an environment where the patien
t feels comfortable enough to disclose their identity.
Best practices for creating a safe space:
- Place a sign that signals that your office is LGBTQ-friendly, and display brochures that are relevant to LGBTQ-health issues.
- Review your literature and forms to ensure they have inclusive language and questions. Add a transgender option alongside “male/female” in your intake forms.
- Do not assume a patient’s sexuality or gender identity, and do not force a patient to disclose their sexual or gender identity if they are uncomfortable. Instead, introduce yourself with your preferred pronouns, and ask about theirs. Do not assume that a trans patient desires or has undergone surgical or hormonal transition. Make it clear that you are comfortable with their identity, and are willing to learn how to support them through identity-specific issues.
- Try having a conversation, if they are comfortable, about their fears and needs. Be aware of the language you use, and ask about their preferred name and gender pronouns.
Ask questions like:
“Who are the most important people in your life?”
“Do you have a significant other?”
“Are you in a relationship?”
“Do you live with anyone?”
“Tell me more about yourself?”
Family, bereavement, and legal challenges
Isolation and “non-traditional” family status factor greatly in the delivery and facilitation of care. LGBTQ individuals are more likely to be single, less likely to have children, and more likely to be estranged from their birth families. Many have “families of choice” (also called “lavender families”), composed of close friends and support groups. But for many LGBTQ elders, these chosen families may be threatened by aging and illness, and face trauma from loss in the HIV epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s.
Many feel concern that their partner might not be recognized or be able to serve as their durable power of attorney for medical and end-of-life decision-making. Those without a legal partner or paperwork specifying their wishes face having family members they may not have spoken to for years making decisions on their behalf. For LGBTQ individuals, having a power of attorney in place is top priority.
And the bereaved are vulnerable to being left out of the picture altogether. Non-registered surviving partners are denied family leave and bereavement benefits, automatic inheritance jointly owned property, and may lose the right to determine funeral plans. Many experience disenfranchised grief by not being recognized as needing support, and often carry a greater care burden due to late access to care.
- Ask who the most important people in their life are
- Ensure that their partner is recognized as such and feels supported.
- If they bring someone into the meeting that they introduce as a close friend but may in fact be their partner, emphasize that you are comfortable with their identity and are willing to support them.
- Address legal concerns
A paucity of research and training
There are large gaps in the literature in regards to providing care for LGBTQ elders. There has been a general “invisibility” of LGBTQ older adults, due to lack of data collection around sexual orientation and gender identity. And most research and much of the data have been based on the experiences of white, middle class to affluent individuals living in urban areas. The majority of the reports and papers found through an online search on LGBTQ end-of-life care was from the UK and Australia.
In order to fully assess and address the issues and needs that LGBTQ individuals face at the end of life, further research must be done. And greater focus must be placed on the diverse range of experiences that make up the community.
- Make an effort to educate yourself on basic LGBTQ health disparities and terminology, and how to recognize and challenge discriminatory beliefs about LGBTQ people.
- Implement a staff training program and advocate for cultural competency in treating LGBTQ patients.
- Encourage further research on the needs and experiences of diverse LGBTQ patients at the end-of-life.
Treating everyone the same is not the same as meeting someone’s needs. It is not so much a matter of providing equal care and avoiding discrimination than recognizing that sexuality and gender can be an important part to someone’s identity, and does impact their health needs.
Making a big impact in the end-of-life and healthcare experiences of LGBTQ patients requires both little and large effort. Providers must have an open mind, be respectful and compassionate, and acknowledge an individual’s unique life from beginning to end—the basic tenets of holistic end-of-life and palliative care.
It’s simple—but it makes all the difference.
National LGBT Health Education Center (Fenway Institute)
National Resource Center on LGBT Aging
SAGE (Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders)
best and promising practices for LGBT cancer patients
LGBTQ -Inclusive Hospice and Palliative Care (Book)
Creating a Welcoming Clinical Environment for LGBT Patients – Rainbow Welcome Initiative
Providing Welcoming Services and Care for LGBT People – Fenway Institute
“Hiding who I am”: The reality of end of life care for LGBT people – Marie Curie
American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine’s video on providing palliative care to LGBT patients
Search engine for agencies trained on LGBT cultural competency – National Resource Center on LGBT Aging
Vivian Lam is a clinical research coordinator in thoracic oncology at UCSF, striving to contribute tangibly to the fields of end of life and palliative care, and the medical humanities. She enjoys running long distance and warbling the same songs in the shower all year long.