Emerging research discovers that even in progressive areas of the country, aging lesbian and bisexual women receive inadequate medical care and mental health support.
Experts believe lesbian and bisexual women are overlooked in the realm of health care and could benefit from the promotion of healthy lifestyle choices tailored to their needs.
Michele Eliason, a San Francisco State University Professor of Health Education and a team of researchers, discovered group intervention can be an effective tool to help women in this demographic improve their overall health behaviors.
The study, published in a supplement to the journal Women’s Health Issues, addressed growing concerns over health disparities amongst older lesbian and bisexual women. Researchers considered elevated levels of stress, anxiety, substance abuse, and larger body sizes among older bisexual and lesbian women — as comparison to their heterosexual counterparts.
Preliminary studies and surveys of older sexual minority women have suggested that many face challenges with openly discussing health and lifestyle issues with their health care providers.
According to Eliason, many participants voiced their frustrations with the difficulties of finding tailored support communities in the Bay Area, which has left many of them feeling isolated and helpless at times.
“It’s important to have support from others in order to make changes in one’s own life,” Eliason said. “Having a place for these women to gather where they could feel safe and talk about issues they were concerned about was really crucial.”
The study was conducted as part of the Healthy Weight in Lesbian and Bisexual Women: Striving for a Healthy Community (HWLB) initiative.
Researchers conducted culturally tailored interventions in 10 cities across the United States, involving five different programs developed through partnerships between research organizations and LGBT community organizations.
The programs were designed to improve the physical and mental quality of life for the participants.
Overall, the programs enrolled more than 375 lesbian and bisexual women ages 40 and older who were overweight. The women participated in weekly group meetings, nutrition education, and physical activity. All women completed pre- and post-intervention surveys.
Post-intervention findings showed nearly 60 percent of the HWLB participants increased their weekly physical activity minutes by 20 percent or more, while 95 percent of HWLB participants achieved at least one of their health improvement objectives. Fifty-eight percent achieved three or more health goals.
Eliason was the principal investigator of the Bay Area intervention project titled Doing it for Ourselves (DIFO), in which she implemented a holistic method of tracking the body’s response to food and activity rather than highlighting weight loss as a primary goal.
The goal of her “mindful approach” interventions was to help women get in touch with their own bodies to find out how different foods affected them. An important part of the program included the discovery of comfortable, pleasurable physical activities that best fit participants needs, rather than forcing all participants into one type of physical activity or diet.
“It is important to gauge the local community norms and desires for health interventions,” Eliason explained. “In some parts of the country, lesbian and bisexual women are more accepting of mainstream health interventions, whereas in the Bay Area, women were much more suspicious of mainstream approaches to health.
We were successful in recruiting women to our program because we culturally tailored the approach to community norms.”
Though the federally funded intervention programs have ended, Eliason plans to begin a new community group in the near future. Several of the former Bay Area groups have continued to meet after the original interventions had ended.
“I feel that there’s a big need for focus groups like these in the Bay Area,” Eliason said. “And simply bringing people together in these communities was probably the thing that has made the biggest difference in improving their quality of life.”