The Quebec minister responsible for seniors, Marguerite Blais, recently announced that the province will spend half a million dollars over three years to fund an education program to improve the lives of queer seniors.
“I don’t think this has happened anywhere else in the world, with this kind of money and this kind of initiative,” says Bill Ryan, a researcher and professor at McGill University. “It’s pretty impressive.”
Ryan conducted the first national Canadian study on issues relating to queer seniors four years ago. He says that while details of the funding are still being worked out, it will go toward educating the general public, organizations that both represent and work with elders, and health and social services agencies.
“It’s a lot of money, and it’s very comprehensive,” says Ryan. “Some of it’s going to involve developing materials, websites and videos and things like that, but a great deal of it is going to be involved in doing more direct sensitization and training on identifying and adapting services to the needs of this particular population.”
While Blais played down the fact that none of the seniors’ residences contacted agreed to host the announcement, Ryan says that this is a sign of why these funds are needed.
“You have to see in that, that there’s a lot of resistance if people thought they could refuse the minister on this,” Ryan says.
Diane Heffernan, coordinator of the Quebec Lesbian Network, can attest to the resistance by residences. Her group — which receives $120,000 of the new funds — has developed a video which talks about the lives of six elder lesbians as a tool to reach out to these residences. To date, only two out of 120 contacted have allowed her to screen it.
“They’re very resistant because the ones who are 80 and over [are] Catholic,” says Heffernan. “The Catholic Church has been very strongly opposing homosexuality in Quebec, so we have a real struggle there. In fact, one of the residences that I was able to show my video, the 25 elderly women who came said to me that the priest on Sunday had told them not to come to see the video.”
Nevertheless, Heffernan says that the very act of asking these residences, and including the video in her request, opens the door because it begins the discussion with the staff.
“They say to me ‘no’, but I know they’re having a debate inside the home with the other workers,” says Heffernan. “They do have to talk about it, they do have to make a decision, so therefore the process is already started.”
Aside from educating the staff and residents, Heffernan also sees her project as reaching out to those women who may have gone back into the closet when they became residents.
“I’ve had a few directors who’ve told me that they had a lesbian in their home, but they committed suicide because of isolation,” says Heffernan.
Ryan agrees that a big difficulty is that many of these queer seniors don’t identify themselves.
“They’re the product of lives lived under the repression of homophobia in a way that no one today can understand, and it’s a very particular population,” Ryan says. “That’s not going to happen 20 or 30 years from now because people are going to be demanding services be adapted.”
On top of the funds in and of themselves, Ryan also believes that this announcement lends legitimacy to the work.
“It’s the first step in starting to change the mentality of the health service networks for seniors, and it’s explaining the context and convincing people that they’re actually out there,” says Ryan. “It’s much like we started doing in schools 25 years ago.”
The Ontario government does not have any dedicated programming for queer seniors, but a government spokesperson says the province is aware of sexual orientation and gender identity as possible factors contributing to elder abuse and have instituted measures to assist.
“We provide online information and links on our Seniorsinfo.ca line to the LGBT community about a variety of issues including health care, housing, legal matters and personal safety,” says Lisa Robart, spokesperson for the Ontario Seniors Secretariat. “In conjunction with some of the largest seniors organizations in Ontario — the Long-Term Care Home Association, the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly, the Ontario Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse, and the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario — we’ve come up with a set of questions to help them re-evaluate their policies, programs and practices when it comes to seniors, including lesbians and gays.”
The BC government currently has no programs specifically for gay and lesbian seniors, according to a spokesperson for the province’s Ministry of Healthy Living and Sport.