When Toronto’s 519 Church Street Community Centre screened the documentary Gen Silent on Sept 27, it was to a packed room surprisingly light on seniors. Stu Maddux’s film tells the story of six Boston-area LGBT seniors and their challenges with later-life care. But only a small group of seniors witnessed the parallels between their lives and that of their American counterparts that evening.
“It probably speaks to the fact that a lot of seniors don’t want to talk about it,” says Lorraine Purdon, director of planning and partnerships for the Family Councils’ Program.
The community is having the conversation regardless.
The screening was the official launch of a new initiative from The 519 that will see it work with long-term care facilities to foster supportive environments for LGBT seniors and their families and friends. The 519 will also look at in-home care and other care options.
“All of those options in terms of the LGBTQ community need to be safe and inclusive,” says Steven Little, manager of education and training at The 519.
Are they not?
According to Purdon, the answer is no. Over the last three years, it’s become evident to her that there is a problem. Staff, volunteers and families have contacted her, expressing their concerns with LGBT-sensitive issues in long-term care facilities. “I realized we really needed to help somehow.”
She reached out to The 519 three weeks ago and, in a case of really good timing, it turned out that The 519 was in the midst of planning this initiative. Little’s team had already identified several priorities.
For one, LGBT seniors in these facilities should be free from exposure to any negative language or behaviour from other residents and staff. Their partners should feel accepted in that environment. They should not have heteronormative assumptions about their gender identity of sexual orientation imposed on them. LGBT seniors should not feel the need to go back into the closet or detransition. These seniors should not have to worry about having services denied or facing any kind of discrimination period.
But many do. They’re often frightened and alone. Little says many LGBT seniors feel disconnected and isolated from their community as they age. Life in care facilities, where they may not have access to their “chosen family,” amplifies that feeling.
Tom Lewis, 71, vouches for the importance of chosen families. “A lot of us built coalitions in our lives,” he says. “I started building a coalition of friends because that was eventually what my family was going to become.”
Historical context here is key. Many of today’s seniors were young guns during the early stages of the gay rights movement and saw decades go by without “sexual orientation” being added to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. These folks experienced discrimination on a regular basis. And while lesbian, gay and bisexual seniors have seen tremendous gains in their lifetime, trans seniors are still largely grasping for similar glory. It’s no surprise that a distrust of authority persists.
“Because of this history of stigmatization and a bit of an outsider status, I think they’re really hyper vigilant to cues of inclusion and exclusion,” says Steven Mock, assistant professor in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at the University of Waterloo.
Mock has been researching LGBT mid-life and aging matters since the early 2000s. He is now spearheading a survey on retirement planning for sexual minority adults in Canada, as well as collaborating on a study that will look at how LGBT seniors are preparing for later life and end-of-life. He’s actively looking for participants. “We want to hear directly from people, ‘What are your experiences in planning for later-life issues?’”
The timing of his research and The 519’s new program clearly indicate that this is a hot issue. And it’s one The 519 is committed to. They’ve secured funding for the next two years, but Little says this is a long-term project. Three facilities are presently working with The 519 on this initiative, all of which reached out to the community centre. “We will be building that up,” Little says.
The project has an advisory group, consisting largely of service providers and LGBT seniors. In fact, The 519 plans to provide training and support for LGBT seniors so that they can volunteer in the participating care facilities. Little says these seniors will bring “lived experience and knowledge.”
Lewis is certainly trying to do just that. He’s a member of The 519’s board of management and is on the advisory group for the new program. “Hopefully, I can be an advocate for programs here and the senior community here and wherever.”
He’s adamant that the community should not be complacent as it tackles this latest struggle. “My impression is that we think a lot of the battles have been won,” he says. “Not in this area.”