3 min

Helping gay senior citizens

Conference will tackle healthcare, isolation and discrimination

Queer seniors taking part in Pride celebrations. Credit: By istolethetv (Flickr Creative Common)

Canada’s gay seniors have seen a lot of change in their lives, such as the legalization of gay and lesbian relationships and same-sex marriage. But as they age, many continue to live in isolation.

In fact, Anna Travers, from Rainbow Health Ontario, says many seniors are driven back into the closet because they fear homophobic healthcare workers and long-term care providers.

“Often seniors stay very quiet about their sexuality,” she says. “Even if they have spent most of their life living openly, they fear discrimination in long-term care.”

Likewise, information for seniors is often not framed with gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans people in mind, says Heather Bain, older LGBT services coordinator at the 519 Church St Community Centre. For many seniors, navigating the system can be confusing and frustrating.

“A big issue in the 50-plus LGBT community is how isolated people become when they are hiding their sexuality,” Bain says. “If they don’t feel they can talk to other people about being gay, they don’t engage in programs or engage with other people. So isolation is a big issue.”

The 50-Plus Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Queer Empowerment Conference: Opening the Closet on Aging will address many key issues facing queer seniors. The conference, which brings together more than 50 speakers on a broad range of topics, takes place Nov 28 and 29 at The 519.

According to Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Elders (SAGE), aging queer seniors are twice as likely to live alone, half as likely to have life partners or significant others, half as likely to have no close relatives to call for help and four times less likely to have children to help them, compared to their heterosexual counterparts.

By 2036, roughly a quarter of Canada’s population will be over the age of 65, the CBC reports. About one million will be from the queer community.

“We know that long-term care is extremely heteronormative,” Travers says. “Seniors have fears about the assumptions made by caregivers.”

Travers says healthcare providers and long-term care providers still need more education on understanding trans issues. Not everyone has had sexual reassignment surgery.

“We have to work with providers. People’s bodies may not always match with what they think they are going to see. How do they handle those situations with dignity and tact?”

The first day of the conference will kick off with a panel discussion focusing on rights, resistance and advocacy. Moderated by activist and educator Anna Willats, it features a discussion with Travers; Rupert Raj, from the Sherbourne Health Centre; Tim McCaskell, from AIDS Action Now; youth advocate Lali Mohamed; and writer Makeda Silvera.

There will also be lots of discussion on activism and movements, particularly within communities of colour. Other topics include women’s issues, HIV/AIDS and trans communities, and the impact of early and recent activism on today’s youth.

“The goal is to provide an overview of the challenges faced by older refugee claimants, those looking for supportive housing, living on government sources of income, pensions, retirement benefits. Expect to hear discussion on power of attorney, wills and legal issues,” says Bain. 

On the second day, Bain says, discussion will shift gears to focus on medical issues, healthcare and long-term care.

“There are lots of questions. What are the legalities surrounding partners, people who are common-law but not married? What are the rights there? Are hospitals and long-term care facilities gay-, lesbian- and trans-friendly? Do staff understand the needs of the community? Will queer seniors be discriminated against in long-term care homes?”

“These are issues we are constantly getting asked about,” Bain says. “The information that’s out there isn’t framed in a way that is specific to LGBT communities, 50-plus, aging. Hopefully the conference will answer these questions for people.”  Opening the Closet on Aging conference schedule