A new study presented at the 2022 American Society on Aging’s annual conference is hoping to shed light on the lived experiences connected to the health and well-being of older adults who identify as biracial/multiracial and bisexual.
Deana Williams, PhD, MPH, lead researcher of the study and a research investigator at the MultiCare Institute for Research and Innovation, told Seasons while research is increasing for some of these groups – including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) older adults – most of the conversation has been centered on gay and lesbian aging among mostly white individuals.
According to the American Psychological Association, of the more than 39 million U.S. adults 65 and older, 2.4 million identify as LGBT. And a 2018 report by the Administration for Community Living also found nearly 23% of people 65 and older were members of racial or ethnic minority populations.
“Oftentimes, when people of color are included in research, it’s only people who belong to one racial or ethnic background. Biracial/multiracial people are being left out of that,” she said. “To my knowledge, this is the first and only study that has ever looked at the intersections of these identities for an aging community.”
Key takeaways from the study
From her semi-structured audio interviews with nine participants from the ages of 50 to 77, Williams discovered five main themes and common lived experiences among biracial and bisexual older adults.
Perceptions of physical health
Despite recent surgeries and chronic health issues, health conditions did not shape participants’ physical health perceptions; instead, they identified as feeling good while maintaining activeness and daily functions.
Williams said studies normally focus on deficits, areas of adversity and struggle when it comes to the health of marginalized communities; however, this specific finding showed ways this population is thriving.
“This shows that this community is not a monolith and that there are positive and negative experiences across the board related to aging and related specifically to physical and mental health,” she said. “The participants were thriving and demonstrated important signs of resiliency in terms of recovering from chronic conditions, cultivating optimism and a ‘can-do’ attitude despite these challenges or barriers.”
Perceptions of mental health
Participants also rated their mental health. Williams explained that participants who rated their mental health as “fair” said they were working at improving their mental health; those who identified as “good” were effectively coping with mental health challenges through resources like counseling; and those who identified their mental health as “very good” were demonstrating signs of resiliency.
“Often, we were painting communities with a stroke of disadvantage, but understanding the nuances of these experiences is important not only for having a better understanding, but in creating strategies, recommendations and interventions that can be the most useful for these communities,” she said.
Participants felt their cultural attitudes and beliefs towards aging helped them establish a positive outlook on the aging process. Others said their multiracial identities and cultures allowed them to accept aging and place older adults in high regard.
Williams added participants felt they were more adaptable and flexible because they were used to being at the intersection of ambiguous identities.
“They transferred the skills they learned from navigating the intersections of their identities to the aging process and therefore felt positive about aging,” she said.
Mixed treatment in health care
A majority of participants reported experiencing discriminatory and stigmatizing treatment from providers, and many said they felt more comfortable and safe when working with culturally “competent” or diverse providers.
Insufficient community services and resources
Nearly all the participants said there were not enough resources or community services available to support them in their intersecting identities. Some participants also mentioned there needs to be more inclusion of older people with these identities when it comes to policymaking and social programming.
What you can do if you’re caring for an older adult who identifies as biracial and bisexual
According to Williams, caregivers and community-based workers can help improve the health and care of older adults who are biracial and bisexual:
Recommendations for caregivers:
- Connect biracial/multiracial and bisexual older adults to providers who are racially and ethnically diverse and are well-trained and educated in bisexual health.
- Acknowledge and validate the fullness of biracial/multiracial and bisexual identities. Doing this “may increase feelings of identity pride, which is a critical component of positive mental health outcomes,” she said.
- Avoid suggesting that individuals with these identities pick a side or choose one racial identity or attraction to one gender over another, as this is a form of erasure.
- Improve cultural connections, which might promote positive aging and increase feelings of optimism. This can include locating affirmative community spaces and social groups where people of these identities can connect with others with similar backgrounds.
- Increase cultural consciousness by educating yourself on bisexual stigma, stereotypes and colorism.
- Build skills in cultural humility and empathy.
Recommendations for community-based workers:
- Improve access and availability of supportive community resources and services geared toward meeting the social needs of older adults who are biracial/multiracial and bisexual.
- Ensure racial and ethnic organizations and community centers treat aging as a priority area for programming, services and resource development.
- Allocate LGBTQ+ funding towards bisexual specific needs and programming.
- Ensure educational training and workshops for caregivers and providers give representation to the bisexual community.
If certain lived experiences related to health from people with intersecting identities go ignored, Williams said this could lead to continued disparities in mental and physical health outcomes, increased risk for social isolation and feelings of loneliness, the potential for avoiding or delaying necessary health care services and preventive screenings, and missed opportunities for providers, caregivers and health professionals to meet the needs of this community.
“People who have these unique lived experiences deserve to be heard and deserve visibility because visibility is the first step towards mapping better futures,” Williams said. “If people don’t know these problems exist or don’t think about the intersections of these identities, how can we ever do anything to improve resources or improve care for these individuals’ lives?”