Trans Elders and Elder Abuse

The public profile of the transgender and transsexual community has grown by leaps and bounds in recent decades, especially post-millenium. While statistics are hard to narrow down, more people appear to be transitioning, living openly, and talking about being trans; in a way, we are looking at a trans generation, a collection of people who are blazing a critical trail for future generations and building a world where it will be safer and easier to be trans than it ever was before.

That has me rather excited. Every time we hit a milestone, whether a serious one like a trans political candidate or one that appears frivolous on the surface like a trans Miss America contestant, this is good news. It means that our visibility is increasing, and that the mystique and unknowability of trans identities is being broken down. The public is being confronted with the reality that, well, we’re here, we’re trans, and they’d better get used to it. We are nothing to be afraid of.

The nonbinary community in particular has made huge strides when it comes to acceptance and public visibility, considering that nonbinary identities weren’t even considered in the public zeitgeist until relatively recently.

Yet, with the explosion of the trans generation, I also have a deep fear, and that’s what’s going to happen to this generation of pioneers as they age. Already, trans elders are at increased risk of elder abuse whether they live in residential facilities, rely on home aides, or don’t have any assistance at all. Many trans people live in poverty, particularly trans women, and that doesn’t exactly change with age; in fact, aging increases your chances of being poor and struggling, and can leave people at a profound social disadvantage thanks to the fact that older adults are treated as disposable in our society.

One the one hand, it seems like growing numbers of trans elders would result in safer conditions for them, a network of support, a reduction in elder abuse. This is a generation used to advocacy work, ferocious out-loud speaking, and not backing down from challenges, all traits that are critically necessary when fighting for human rights. Yet, like other older adults, they run the risk of being put out to pasture and forgotten by a new generation, which would leave them moldering in facilities and situations where they would be exposed to serious risk of abuse; and no evidence supports the idea that older adults in general aren’t targets for abuse and no one would do such a thing.

Elder abuse is a huge social problem across the United States, with numerous unscrupulous people taking advantage of older adults economically and socially as well as abusing them physically. Deaths in facilities dedicated to adults who need skilled nursing care or who don’t have a safe place to be and are forced into institutions are high, and they’re often cursorily investigated, if at all. Rape and other sex crimes also occur within the context of nursing home walls, and strike all older adults; unsurprisingly, the existing trans elder population tends to be at especially high risk for this kind of abuse.

And in the disability community, of course, nursing home abuse not just for elders but for all people trapped in institutions has been a documented issue for decades. The community has fought long and hard to free disabled people from these risky environments, to raise awareness, to fight for better protections, and it’s been largely ignored. The body of activism, discussion, and precedent on the abuse of older adults and disabled people suggests that trans elders, a vulnerable population now, will continue to be vulnerable even when they’re larger in number.

I worry about the fate of all elders, and about the lack of attention paid to conditions in elder ‘care’ facilities now, but this is another reason why there’s a compelling argument to get involved with activism to protect elders now, not when we ourselves are elderly and facing down the abusive aide, the neglectful nurse, the rapist in cleaner’s clothing. Standing with and behind elders, working in solidarity with them to improve conditions, tighten laws on elder abuse, force investigations into abuse, and take other actions to make it clear that we as a society will not tolerate the abuse of elders will make elders safer today…and tomorrow.

We often wait for activism until it strikes a cause close to us, something that personally affects us. And I understand why people do this. There’s so much wrong in the world, and there are so many things to advocate on, and it isn’t possible for one person to do it all; we need to pick and choose our advocacy work, to determine where our energies are best directed, to work efficiently and well and support related movements while we can. For many, elder abuse isn’t a priority, though that doesn’t mean they don’t care about it.

How can we integrate it more fully into larger social justice movements? How can we protect our elders today and into the future? How can we address the epidemic of abuse of trans elders that’s occurring right now, and will only get worse with time? These are the things I’m thinking about right now, because I desperately want us to take action before it’s too late, not just for ourselves, but for those who are suffering in facilities right now and need some visible sign that the outside society cares about them, is fighting for them, and wants to extricate them from situations of torture, abuse, and more.

Don’t write off our elders, not least because you’ll be one yourself someday (we hope).