If all goes according to plan, Caron Bochek and Janet Senft will launch a one-of-a-kind supportive care residence dedicated to lesbian seniors in January.
For Senft, the experiences of her now-deceased aunt at a Calgary nursing home were uppermost in her mind when she decided to open the residence on Vancouver Island with her partner Bochek.
Once an independent Saskatchewan grain farmer living a solitary life, Senft’s aunt never spoke about her sexuality and, as far as her niece could tell, never had a partner.
Then she arrived at the nursing home. She soon struck up what Senft describes as a soul mate connection with another woman-a connection the attending staff frowned upon.
“They would have their arms around each other and hold hands. They were the best of friends,” Senft recalls. “But then the nursing staff would say to us, ‘You know, this is not right, this behavior is not acceptable.’ And I’m thinking, ‘What behavior?’ ‘Oh, she’s too friendly with this lady,’ they’d say. So the whole concept of lesbian seniors did not register for them.”
As far as the couple can ascertain from their research, their new Porter Creek residence will be a rare, if not completely unique, facility in BC and perhaps Canada. Residences created with queer seniors in mind are essential given the heterosexist nature of most mainstream seniors homes, they say.
Opening a lesbian-dedicated home is “the right thing to do, in the right place, and the right time,” says Senft, pointing to the sheer numbers of baby boomers now entering their 60s and 70s, who are beginning to make their voices heard in the debates around health and quality of life issues.
“Caron and I are at the bottom edge of the baby boom generation. We have several friends entering the 65-year-and-over age bracket. We’re beginning to hear questions like, ‘What will we do when we get old, can we continue to be together, what happens if we can’t?’
“The community is coming of age and looking for alternatives to nursing homes,” says Senft. “We’ve listened to the stories of other people who, after their experience of living out of the closet, find that they feel they need to go back into the closet when they get to a certain age.”
Victoria Lesbian Senior Care Society (VLSCS) chair Patti Parkyn has seen and heard her share of moving anecdotes that speak to the need for specialized residences catering to the needs of queer seniors.
“I know one woman who is in her 80s and she came out later in life. It was difficult for her children to accept her orientation, and she actually moved away from her family, from her grandchildren, and found herself a partner in Victoria. So they provided support for each other. But she still, to this day, struggles with the fact that she’s not able to have a close relationship with her kids back in Alberta.
“Women have had to make a choice to give up [family] and to have that other life,” says Parkyn. “It was okay if Mom was single, and Mom was not flaunting her lesbianism. But the minute Mom finds a partner and throws that in the face of the children-women have had to choose, and that choice often leads to isolation.”
Stories like this reinforce Parkyn’s support for the creation of residences like Porter Creek. She points out that many of the long-term care facilities and nursing homes being built now include rooms for couples-heterosexual couples, that is.
It’s important, she says, that those involved in the planning of these new settings consider that the couples for whom they are catering may be from the queer community.
“Our cohort is so out that we are going to demand that facilities be gay-friendly,” Parkyn notes, adding that a lot of gay men with HIV/AIDs are living longer and will need places to be themselves as well.
Dr Shari Brotman of the McGill School of Social Work, says Bochek and Senft’s assertion that theirs is a unique living arrangement is probably accurate, and applauds the Vancouver Island couple’s efforts to put the supportive living model out there as an option for lesbian seniors.
She sees it as an example of the women’s community model of living. If there is any downside, she says, it’s finding a way to balance the cost of maintaining a privately run residence while also making it affordable.
The closest counterpart to the Porter Creek model, Brotman suggests, is Montreal’s Maison Urbaine, an independent living apartment building for gay retirees. Another facility, based in Toronto, has one floor designated as gay-friendly, but it’s more of chronic care outfit, she says.
Brotman, who recently spearheaded a study about the health and social service needs of gay and lesbian seniors in Canada, says there ought to be a public sector response to queer seniors whose needs and comfort levels can be quite varied.
“Some people want to be in specific environments. Some women, for example, don’t want to be in mixed housing settings, something that came up in our study. Those who have been feminist activists expressed a strong interest in being with other women. As they age, they are asking, ‘How can we get together and buy a house, and run it together?’ So they are trying to find ways to stay connected as a community, taking care of themselves and others,” says Brotman.
For now, Bochek and Senft are thinking small. They have room at Porter Creek for three persons to occupy a large suite and two smaller bedrooms in what they hope will be a communal family setting.
It’s essentially a room-and-board lodging, explains Bochek, with occupants’ security, nutritional and extra-curricular needs included in the services offered. While no medical care will be provided on-site, the residence is minutes away from health and emergency medical care in Chemainus to the south, and Ladysmith to the north. If necessary, the couple is also open to making home care arrangements, Bochek notes.
“We are focusing on today and what we have now,” she says, “but if I dare to dream, down the road, absolutely the idea of expanding, maybe even adopting a co-op [approach] and having six to eight units self-contained. That may be possible eventually.”