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4 min

Retiring to the closet?

Limited options for queer seniors

SENIORS ON PARADE. Queer residents rode a Fudger House bus in last year's Pride Parade as part of the retirement residences' iniative to become more gay-inclusive.

When Heather-Ann Brown retired and moved into a seniors’ residence she felt as though she’d stepped into a time warp.

“I can’t have any peace because I’m still dealing with the people I had to deal with in the ’70s and ’80s except they’re older,” says Brown, who lives at St Anne’s Place, a seniors’ co-op at Dufferin and Dundas.

Although some nursing-home administrators and public health officials are now cluing in to the existence of queer seniors, gay-friendly retirement facilities are in short supply, leaving out seniors with the choice of going back into the closet or putting up with homophobic attitudes from their curmudgeonly counterparts in order to get long-term care.

“I feel so lucky because other people must put up with it somehow,” says Brown, who publishes a weekly e-bulletin for lesbians 50 and older called Fer Da Girlz. “Once you get outside the community, there’s virtually no recognition of LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual,trans] issues.”

The 66-year-old says she used to put up with subtle homophobia from the other residents, thinking that speaking up wouldn’t make a difference to people in their 80s and 90s. Finally, after three Pride posters she’d put up in the building’s elevators were taken down “within five minutes,” she decided to take the issue to the home’s administrators.

She says she was relieved to find St Anne’s the organization willing to publicly address her concerns with building’s 110 residents.

Now, Brown says she doesn’t put up with homophobia from other residents. “I can’t change their minds but they know my views and I don’t want to hear it,” she says. “I’ll let them say anything if they’re really old. But I call them on it.”

Gary Vellek, 61, has lived at city-run Fudger House at Sherbourne and Wellesley for almost five years. The former head of the classics department at Acadia University suffered a brain aneurism several years ago and is unable to live independently.

Although happy with Vellek’s care, his ex-partner and guardian Matt Hughes was annoyed that admin-organized social events for the 250 residents ignored the home’s queer residents. Hughes and Vellek have always been out, becoming the first same-sex couple to get spousal benefits from a Nova Scotia university in 1984.

When the city solicited feedback, Hughes took the opportunity to complain. “You think everyone at Fudger House is straight but they’re not,” he responded. “There are gay people here, too, and you do nothing for them.”

The city responded by designating Fudger House and Kipling Acres in Etobicoke safe havens for queer and trans seniors, setting aside 16 beds as they become available. Staff underwent sensitivity training, gay films were added to the homes’ movie libraries and residents rode a Fudger House bus in last June’s Pride Parade.

“This is an area they hadn’t thought a lot about, that didn’t occur to anyone,” says Rosemary Bennett, manager of communications with Toronto Social Development And Administration. “We figured there are 100,000 [queer] seniors out there. We didn’t think 16 beds would do it but we have to start somewhere. The goal is to spread gay-positive culture across all the homes.”

While Bennett says staff have generally been open to sensitivity training, the residents and their families have been a harder group to reach. Dick Moore, coordinator of the 519 Community Centre’s Older GLBT Program, says the reaction to seminars he’s offered in city-run seniors’ homes have been mixed: some residents are open, some are shy, others are flat-out hostile.

“We have a lot farther to go. It will take more than two 40-minute workshops,” he says. “These people are in their homes. In your home, you might not want to have a workshop on something you might consider as the Ku Klux Klan.”

Queer residents were factored right into the design of the new Wellesley Central Place, a 150-bed nursing home that occupies the site of the old Wellesley Hospital. Each of the home’s six wings offer private rather than shared rooms, making it easier for residents to “queer up their rooms,” says Mary Hoare, the home’s chief administrative officer.

In hiring staff, recruiters sought out queer candidates and brought up caring for queer residents during the interview. Hoare says anyone who reacted with discomfort or hostility wasn’t called in for a second interview.

While Moore applauds local nursing homes’ willingness to reach out to queer residents, he adds that all institutions – religious, secular, multicultural, wealthy and low-income – need to adopt policies inclusive of queer residents.

“Remember, not everybody is in Toronto. If you’re in Port Colborne or Kapuskasing, where do you go if you’re queer?”

While some public facilities work at becoming queer-friendly, a private company may soon be offering other options.

“The problem with nursing homes is, you can’t control the residents,” says Gordon Davies, the director of Vivat Group, a company looking to build condos geared toward older queers.

“You can sensitize the staff and have them onboard but what do you do with a senile senior man who hates gays? You can’t kick him out,” says Davies. “I’m not sure anyone has found an ideal solution.”

Vivat is currently negotiating to purchase the site for a 200-unit building in Leslieville or the Distillery District for queers aged 45 and older. Unlike similar projects south of the border where queers retire to stucco bungalows in warmer climes, the condo would offer urban living and be inclusive of younger people.

When Davies advertised the project in 2003 several hundred members signed up – many under age 45 – to outline their vision for the community: Pet-friendly, with common areas and in a not-too-expensive neighbourhood with lots of green space and TTC access. Davies can’t confirm a price yet but expects the units will sell at market rate; a little more than $300 per square foot.

“If we get the site right it will be an easy sell,” says Davies. “Our members are getting impatient. They want to go to the next stage but we want to get it right.”