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    Focus Groups Maximize Diverse Voices in California’s Landmark Study on LGBTQIA+ Mid-Life and Older Adults

    By Dr. Angie Perone, PhD, JD, MSW, MA–

    California is embarking on a landmark study of LGBTQIA+ mid-life and older adults throughout the state. This study will provide much-needed information and visibility about the experiences and needs of this population. And visibility and knowledge can bring new resources, funding, and support. While most large studies are limited to surveys, this trailblazing study also includes focus groups, which will help ensure we collect in-depth information from some of the hardest-to-reach LGBTQIA+ mid-life and older Californians.

    Focus groups are a powerful tool for maximizing diverse voices that may otherwise be difficult to include solely from surveys. Focus groups are ideal for examining complex phenomena and needs among minoritized communities—especially those who experience multiple forms of oppression. Surveys alone cannot always capture this complexity. As survey sample sizes get smaller, the likelihood for obtaining errors increases. Small sample sizes can undermine the internal and external validity of a study—meaning that they make it harder to show that conclusions are trustworthy and accurately explained (internal validity) and that the results can be generalized beyond the situation, group, or event studied (external validity). Studies that aim to capture experiences of communities that may be small in number often benefit from incorporating qualitative data, including focus groups.

    Many of the hardest-to-reach LGBTQIA+ communities comprise small samples because of the multiple ways that they experience marginalization based on race, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, income, etc. The more specific the community, the smaller it may be (e.g., low-income Black same-gender-loving older adults) compared to the general population. And sometimes being small in number can mean that a community has been overlooked in resources, funding, and support. This groundbreaking study aims to change that.

    Overall, LGBTQIA+ mid-life and older Californians remain vastly understudied compared to many other communities in California, and the survey will provide much-needed data to document the needs, hopes, and priorities of mid-life and older LGBTQIA+ residents throughout California. But we know even less about LGBTQIA+ communities of color, low-income communities, and other minoritized LGBTQIA+ communities. The focus groups will help to better understand the specific challenges, needs, and supports among some of the hardest-to-reach, low-income, minoritized LGBTQIA+ mid-life and older Californians.

    Why does this matter? Why do we need to pay particular attention to these communities? While national research is sparse on older LGBTQIA+ communities of color, lesbians and bisexuals, transgender adults, and low-income communities, we do know that poverty rates, health disparities, and experiences of discrimination are higher compared to the general population and compared to white LGBTQIA+ older adults with higher incomes. Emerging research is revealing that LGBTQIA+ communities experiencing elevated disparities and discrimination may also have diverse forms of coping, resilience, and sources of support. To best serve all LGBTQIA+ mid-life and older Californians, we need to better understand the challenges, needs, and opportunities to support this diverse community.

    Facilitated discussions during focus groups can help identify potential interventions, resources, and supports that could be helpful. While LGBTQIA+ mid-life and older Californians are by no means a homogenous group, many have shared historical experiences of exclusion, discrimination, and resilience. Focus groups organized around common experiences allow participants to build off shared experiences, explore nuances and differences among shared experiences, bounce off ideas, diversify opinions, and flesh out issues more comprehensively. Focus groups can surface new ideas from group conversation.

    Given emerging research on disparities within LGBTQIA+ communities, we expect that the survey will also reveal disparities among LGBTQIA+ mid-life and older Californians. Focus groups will allow us to ask additional, targeted questions to unpack, contextualize, and help explain some of these disparities.

    The study team will be recruiting focus group participants through three primary avenues: the survey, community partners, and community members. People who complete the survey can indicate if they are interested in participating in additional research. We also have a vast and growing network of community partners that will be helping to share information about the focus groups. We anticipate that LGBTQIA+ community members and allies will also help us spread the word.

    The focus groups would not be happening without generous support from the California Health Care Foundation, the SCAN Foundation, and the Metta Fund. We are also fortunate to have a very passionate and committed team of researchers and community collaborators whose expertise has helped shape this project. We are thrilled to participate in this landmark study and to help elevate voices of LGBTQIA+ mid-life and older Californians, especially that of those who are often otherwise left unheard.

    Dr. Angie Perone is an Assistant Professor at the University of California School of Social Welfare and Director of its Center for the Advanced Study of Aging Services. She previously served as a staff attorney at the National Center for Lesbian Rights and Executive Director of SAGE Metro Detroit.

    Aging in Community
    Published on January 25, 2024