Journey Story

One Size Does Not Fit All: Pastoral Care For LGBT Seniors

by Jennifer Mahru

I’ve found myself a part of people’s lives in a profound way while providing spiritual care as a chaplain for the past three years.

While working in hospice and hospital settings, I have been privileged to be invited into the most delicate and precarious of times.

I’ve held the hand of the dying, I’ve comforted the mourning, I’ve been a witness to pain and joy and rawness unparalleled. Through it all, I’ve been aware of the gift that I’ve been given—to walk alongside and to journey with. But it wasn’t until I began working for the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry (CLGS) that I started to see pastoral care in a very different light.

Through a generous grant from the San Francisco Foundation, CLGS created a project providing spiritual care to LGBT seniors. It was through this project that I was invited to explore the specific needs of this vital population, a population that will someday include me, as I myself identify as queer.

In researching this subject, I learned one of the most important lessons of my chaplaincy career: one size of chaplaincy does not fit all. Chaplains are taught that active and empathetic listening is the key to providing the best possible pastoral care, that meeting a person or family where they are in the heart of being a good chaplain. But I would venture to say that while all of that is, in fact, true, there is another tool to add to the proverbial toolbox—deeply knowing and understanding the experience of your patient population.

LGBT seniors came of age during a time when homosexuality was seen as a psychiatric disorder by the general public or worse.

At an extreme, some were forced to endure exorcism, electro-shock therapy, or conversion therapy. The stressors of aging faced by many seniors are compounded by the trauma inflicted by religion and society around their sexual identity. In addition to dealing with issues of grief around loss of self, transition, and independence, most LGBT elders are also dealing with deeply rooted trauma around rejection from friends, family, and church because of their sexuality.

While empathetic listening and meeting someone, where they are, is indeed valuable, having a deep awareness of the pain and trauma a group has endured can open the door to asking questions that are pointed to a population’s experience. In other words, doing the work to contextualize someone’s pain can potentially lead to conversations of greater healing.

I believe this goes for any marginalized population—one size of chaplaincy does not fit all. Each group has individual concerns and experiences that are specific to their needs and experiences.

As spiritual care providers, it is our duty to understand what those experiences are.

I was invited by CLGS to write a resource that is being distributed both locally and nationally for clergy on the specific spiritual needs of LGBT seniors. In it, I discuss the particular vulnerabilities faced by LGBT seniors including physical, financial, and emotional abuse inflicted as a result of homophobia or transphobia.

I also touch on the possible suspicion some LGBT seniors may have towards religious professionals such as chaplains or ministers based on their previous experience of being shunned by organized religion. A copy of the resource can be found on the CLGS website.

My work at CLGS has broken open my career in pastoral care. I’m now considering getting a Ph.D. in order to teach others the ethical importance of engaging spiritually with marginalized populations. Learning about the challenges LGBT seniors face has helped me to not only unearth something really important about my vocation, but it has also illuminated for me the wealth of knowledge and experience they bring to our community writ large.

Having survived so much, LGBT seniors possess wisdom from which we can all learn.

By educating ourselves and bringing LGBT seniors into the fold of our everyday communities, we grow not only as individuals but as a collective. In the process, we expand what it means to provide for each other spiritually, understanding that there is much more to our stories, that there is much more to each of us.

One size indeed does not fit all, and though it’s a good place to start, we owe it to those outside the fray to look deeply at just where it is they come from and let them show us where we can go.

The National Resource Center on LGBT Aging, with support from many other groups, has recently launched an online training designed to increase awareness of the issues faced by LGBT individuals living in long term care (LTC) facilities. To learn more, visit their website.

Photo by flickr user Kevin Dooley

Comments (1)

Virginia Wendel

I appreciate the wisdom of
I appreciate the wisdom of your article and the work that you are doing. thank you!

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