4 min

Senior Pride Network takes an activist approach to aging

Gay libbers set eyes on reforming elder care

Cathy Collett, Marie Robertson and Barry Deeprose (from left) are accustomed to fighting the medical establishment - and winning. Credit: Ben Welland

They are a formidable trio.

They were gay liberationists, a force behind HIV/AIDS activism and — now that their hair is greying — they are gearing up for another fight: putting in place better care for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender elders.

Cathy Collett, Barry Deeprose and Marie Robertson are activists who have been fighting for gay rights since the 1970s.

Robertson was a board member of PTS in 1984. Before that, she was a co-founder of the Coalition for Lesbian and Gays Rights in Ontario and an active member of the AIDS Committee of Toronto.

Robertson stands tall. She wears funky glasses, dangly earrings, chunky silver rings and bangles that clink together as if to punctuate her speech when she talks.

“We are the first generation of gay liberationists. So we have been doing activist work for 40 years. We are coming into retirement and needing more care services. Well, of course we are the same people we were 40 years ago, and we’re saying, ‘Wait a moment, we are not going back into the closet,’” she says.

Like Robertson, Collett and Deeprose were early PTS board members. Deeprose went on to co-found the AIDS Committee of Ottawa (a PTS spinoff) in 1985.

Deeprose is a slight man. He is chatty, soft-spoken and still a force to be reckoned with.

“Age is a master status; it dominates everything. And so they see ‘old.’ They don’t even see man or woman, let alone gay or straight or lesbian or straight,” says Deeprose. “So I think we have to break that down so we see the individuals for who they are.”

In Ottawa, there are no residential homes or care facilities that cater to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender seniors. So as the first generation of Canadians who refused to tolerate homophobia gets older, Robertson, Collett and Deeprose worry that care facilities — often conservative places to begin with — will prove hostile to their sexualities.

The Ottawa Senior Pride Network — made up of health and social-service providers, representatives of community organizations that work with seniors, and gay and trans people aged 50 plus — aims to fix that.

Collett, the chair of the Pride Network, is a no-nonsense woman. She will soon retire from her job as director of mental health and addiction services at the Centretown Community Health Centre (CCHC). For her, the formation of the Senior Pride Network and the fight to ensure care for aging citizens is all about timing.

“The timing just seems right, both within the [lesbian, gay, bi and trans] community and in terms of a number of gay activists who are 55 plus and have been gay activists all their lives. This is the next frontier, looking at aging well in our community and in the community at large,” she says.

The Ottawa Senior Pride Network is committed to creating safe, queer-friendly environments in long-term care facilities and residential homes, as well as building a vibrant community. To achieve this, members have taken a two-pronged approach.

“One is to make systemic change, by making care facilities more aware and more culturally competent. The other is in our own community, to make our older LGBT people more visible and connected with each other and also to begin to counteract the ageism around our own community,” says Deeprose.

Working under the umbrella of CCHC, the Ottawa Senior Pride Network received a start-up grant from New Horizons. It was used to train professionals and for community engagement. The grant ended in February.

The network is now applying for a United Way grant to fund a pilot program. A full-time staff person will use a toolkit, developed by the Toronto Senior Pride Network, to assess existing services at the Peter D Clark Long-Term Care Home and the Good Companions seniors’ centre.

The network will then provide cultural competency training and professional development for staff and volunteers. Information garnered from the pilot program would potentially be used to train others.

Meanwhile, in June 2010, a working group organized a conference, Taking LGBT Aging Out of the Closet: Creating Community as We Age.

“We evolved our own thinking around what we, as gay people, want to see in terms of our own community. What that would look like in terms of engagement, and it was a fascinating process of exploring ourselves,” says Collett. “By the time we got to the conference we had really built up some energy because we added new people each month to the sessions.”

The conference attracted 65 people. The structure was organic; people wrote down the topics they were interested in, broke into groups then gathered to discuss their goals and objectives.

Several of the sub-groups — such as social spaces and the senior men’s discussion group — still meet on a regular basis. Other topics, like self-defence and dying with dignity, are covered in one-day workshop and information sessions.

The spinoff from the conference is still gaining momentum, and the network is applying for a grant from the City of Ottawa to hire a part-time person to strengthen its community outreach.

For a group that went toe to toe with the medical establishment over AIDS — and gradually remade the way illness is treated in Canada — turning their attention to elder care means returning to earlier modes of activism.

“I think we are doing it to make things better for the people who are there now, who really cannot speak for themselves and people vulnerable at that age,” says Deeprose. “We are trying to improve things for the people who are already there and prepare the facilities for us.”

Deeprose is adamant that change will happen; as die-hard activists, they will not back down.

“It could evolve into cultural warfare because we are used to confrontation,” he says.

Collett is slightly less combative. She says they will work with facilities at their own pace to force change.

“I think what we want to do is create an understanding… so they see that this is a human rights issue,” she says. “I think more and more people are touched in some way by the gay issue. They’ve got a gay parent, a gay child; they’ve got a gay son, a gay daughter. You don’t have to go too far from people for them to be touched by this issue.”

Collett, Deeprose and Robertson represent a greying gay, bi and trans population that is approaching retirement. Their continued activism, Deeprose says, “goes back to the old gay lib stuff of becoming visible.” All three intend to make it happen.

To find out more, search Senior Pride Network (Ottawa) on Facebook.