SWAG. No, it isn’t anything illegal. The initials stand for Social Workers in Aging and Gerontology. On May 26, SWAG met in an Ottawa elder-care residence to talk about long-term care (LTC) for gays and lesbians.
LTC is part of a spectrum of housing for the elderly. It is more intensive care than what’s given in a seniors’ residence, with medical staff on hand around the clock.
Erin Richards, whose master’s work was on the subject of gays in long-term care, presented her findings. Her audience took an active part in sharing their own professional experiences.
Richards is a stay-at-home mom for her eight-month-old daughter, but before doing her undergrad and master’s of social work at Carleton, she spent four years working in LTC homes. During that time, she noticed that none of the residents ever self-identified as gay or lesbian, but she thought it unrealistic to believe that none were. She remarked that gays and lesbians in LTC can be targets for three kinds of discrimination: heterosexism, ageism and ableism.
The research for her thesis involved interviews with small groups of older gays and lesbians in Ottawa and Peterborough about the possibility of living in an LTC facility as they age. Her participants were often afraid — afraid of other residents, of staff and of the wider community. There was even fear of physical aggression. Participants in the groups were adamant about not wanting a facility, LTD or retirement home, connected with any religious community.
Some people in the groups would prefer a totally queer setting; some would prefer a sex-segregated environment. The idea of a queer setting would involve both residents and staff. Others in the groups favoured integration in a setting that would allow them to affirm their identity.
Richards suggested three ways to make LTC facilities more gay-friendly. First, she called for building and strengthening community partnerships, including with the queer community. Second, she saw the need for active participation of lesbians and gays in all levels of LTC. Such participation includes volunteering with residents and taking part in diversity training for staff and residents. She also focused on other people who have contact with the homes, such as paramedics.
Finally, overall policy needs to be overtly gay-positive, for example, using the rainbow flag, staff with rainbow pins, and use of language that does not make hetero assumptions. Policy should always consider implications for gay-lesbian identity. A zero-tolerance policy for discrimination is a must.
Richard also attempted to survey LTC administrators but got back only five out of 28 questionnaires. One SWAG participant related a story about trying to get a bed for a man who was HIV-positive. She ran into all kinds of resistance.
But that could change. Richards points out that baby boomers entering LTC are less willing to tolerate conditions that older gays and lesbians felt that they had to accept.