7 min

The ‘terrifying prospect’ of returning to the closet

Searching for gay-friendly seniors homes

'THERE ARE THINGS YOU JUST CAN'T LEAVE AT THE DOOR': Christine Waymark dreads the idea of entering a seniors' home and losing her individuality and her identity as a lesbian. Credit: John Inch photo

In 1956, Jeanette Piry was living in Hong Kong working for the French consulate when she met Grace, the woman who would become her partner for life.

In love and committed, but not married, over the years they fought to be treated like any other couple. Jeanette even carried a letter from her lawyer at all times that said she was allowed to ask questions or get information about Grace in an emergency.

Surprisingly, when the time came for the couple to access gay-friendly seniors care, it wasn’t so difficult.

When Grace moved into the Royal Arch Masonic Care Home, staff treated her relationship with respect, care and dignity —allowing her to live out her final days in joy and peace with her partner.

“They treated me just like any old man who came to see his wife or any wife who came to see her husband,” Jeanette says. “They knew that we loved each other.

“I don’t camp about,” she notes. “I am a normal human being who very much loved a person for 51 years who was dying.”

As gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender folks begin to age, many of them are turning their thoughts to what will happen to their sexual identities if they need in-home or residential care, what resources will be available to them, if they’ll be separated from their partners and if they’ll have to live with discrimination at a time when they are most dependent on the kindness and care of others.

“The concern is having to go back into the closet and having to appear as we’re not,” says Stephen Lock, a gay activist living in Calgary. “It’s a rather terrifying prospect.”

For Jeanette and Grace, their experiences with residential care began after Grace’s health began to deteriorate and in-home care wasn’t enough to help them cope.

Grace’s name was on the waiting list for Royal Arch, but she had to take the first bed that was available, which was at the Arbutus Care Centre. The care there was sufficient, but Grace didn’t have a private room, and they were thrilled three months later when her name came up for a place at Royal Arch.

Jeanette chose Royal Arch because her own parents had been there, but primarily because they were welcoming and gay-friendly.

“It’s the only retirement facility which did work in sensitizing the staff towards gay, same-sex elderly couples,” she says.

“We were the first out gay couple,” she adds.

Staff at Royal Arch were well prepared before their arrival with seminars and sensitivity training, and Jeanette can’t say enough about the care they received. She was guaranteed privileges as a partner, not as just a ‘friend.’ Visiting hours didn’t apply, she was entitled to ask questions about Grace’s care and was treated as an integral part of Grace’s life.

Jeanette and Grace were also treated respectfully by other residents, though there was one elderly gentleman who constantly glared at them in the dining room. After Jeanette complained, he was moved to another table.

Grace was comfortable socially, she made friends and participated in activities. Her sexual identity, far from concealed, didn’t prevent her from enjoying herself.

“She didn’t give it a thought,” says Jeanette. “Grace was so natural in her loving of me she didn’t give it a thought that people wouldn’t be tolerant.”

But how common is Jeanette’s and Grace’s experience?

How many out seniors are living in homes, and how are they coping?

“I think that’s almost an impossible question to answer,” says Chris Morrissey, program coordinator for the LGTB Generations Project.

“There are very few openly out gay, lesbian, trans, or bi folks that we have been able to connect with that are currently in residential care facilities. There are a few, but there have to be more than we know.”

As for residential care homes, Morrissey says “there are very few homes that are clearly welcoming.”

The reason for that lies partially in homophobia, but it’s also due to heterosexism, Morrissey explains. Seniors homes tend to ignore sexuality in general, whether you’re straight or gay, but in the case of LGBT seniors, they can be pigeonholed in their sexuality while simultaneously being ignored because of it, leading to invisibility.

“If you’re not welcoming, then you’re not gay-friendly, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re homophobic,” Morrissey continues. “It’s that heterosexual assumption. If you only see us about our sexuality and you don’t see us because of our sexuality, then all of that other stuff gets missed.”

Christine Waymark’s experience is very different than Jeanette Piry’s.

Both her own mother and her partner Robin’s parents were in residential care facilities, and she feels that while individual people can be tolerant, on the whole seniors homes aren’t particularly gay-friendly.

When dealing with Robin’s parents in their care home, Robin’s brother and his wife were completely accepted as a couple, while Robin and Christine weren’t granted that same recognition. Robin’s sister-in-law could ask questions and have access to information, but Christine didn’t have that privilege.

“For the most part, it was very difficult to get people to see that I could speak for Robin’s parents and she could speak for mine,” she says.

And while Robin’s parents and their friends had always been accepting of Robin and Christine’s relationship, when they went into the home it was like her in-laws went back into the closet as well.

Robin’s mother began describing Christine as “Robin’s friend” and though Christine had called her mother-in-law “Mum” for many years, she returned to calling her by her first name.

Christine has also had in-home care, and she is always up front with care workers about her sexual identity. When she told one care worker that she’s a lesbian, the care worker said, “You don’t want that on your file, do you?”

She is concerned about a time when she may need full-time residential care and is afraid of losing her individuality and her identity as a lesbian. Christine hopes for a queer-friendly home, but is skeptical.

“There’s a long way to go,” she says. “There’s every possibility that it could be better, but sometimes politics gets in the way of that. So if you’re 20 years younger, you better keep working at it.”

People like Chris Morrissey are working to make residential care homes a more welcoming and accepting place for queer seniors, raising visibility and creating awareness about LGBT issues for the aging population.

She conducts workshops and seminars, like the training she offered Royal Arch staff in preparation for Grace’s arrival. She also encourages organizations to look at their policies, forms, brochures, language use and codes of conduct, and is creating a tool kit for organizations on how to bring about change.

“The responsibility at this point appears to be on the individual,” says Morrissey. “What I’m working towards is the residences taking some responsibility. That they work to create an environment of safety, so that if people choose to come out they can. There are things you just can’t leave at the door.”

Morrissey has also started a working group of people including staff from seniors homes, seniors centres, home support workers, executive directors and social workers.

Mary Yates, a social worker at Royal Arch, is part of this group and has worked closely with Morrissey to make the home more inclusive for all sexualities.

“We really want to make this a home-like environment for people who are going to be living here,” she says.

Yates says that Royal Arch aims to become more welcoming of diversity. They educate staff on an ongoing basis, have expanded their definition of what constitutes family, have adjusted policies to acknowledge sexual orientation and gender identity, and take every opportunity to talk to residents about diversity.

Across Canada, homes that cater specifically to gay seniors are also beginning to surface.

In the Lower Mainland, Vancouver-based Plum Living Properties is partnering with RainbowVision Properties Inc to create a local queer community-living environment.

Plum Living’s Dean Malone says he was inspired to create such an environment after attending a human rights conference last July.

“We’ve talked about it for so long, it was about time that somebody tried to make it happen,” he says. “There’s been so much progress, more people are out. There are many people who want this as an option.”

Last February, Plum Living launched a community questionnaire to get feedback about what people actually want. Malone says that the response has been strong, from a vast cross-section of people.

Plum Living plans to offer both rental properties and owned condos, as well as assisted living. It will also have lots of opportunities for neighbourhood participation, for people who don’t live onsite.

But this kind of community is still a couple of years away from being completed. And many people may not be able to afford them.

“My concern about some of those initiatives is that they primarily cater to people who can afford them,” says Morrissey. “It still leaves behind people in our community. It doesn’t become a realistic option for many.”

Malone understands that Plum Living might not meet the needs of everyone, but it can meet the needs of some, he says.

“Hopefully with all of the ideas that are going on in Vancouver, there will be lots of solutions for people who are LGBT,” he adds.

Though most mainstream seniors homes are far from gay-friendly now, Morrissey maintains a positive outlook for the future.

“When we started in this program, there wasn’t a whole lot that was happening,” she says. “In the past six years, I’ve seen some of the changes and I’ve had the opportunity to actually talk to people who are in charge. There’s a recognition that this is an important topic.”

As for Jeanette Piry, she believes that change is imminent.

“The people who were the most ignorant were the old people, the old school bigots who had not been exposed to homosexuality,” she says. “The baby boomers will be a more modern type of retiree.”

Morrissey also believes that upcoming generations will refuse to go back into the closet.

“If I have to go into a residence, I’m not changing my life. I’m not changing who I am,” she says.

“I think when it comes to the next wave of us who will be in there, we are going to be the ones who are going to, just as we have in so many other areas, be the ones breaking the mould.

“I hope that the work that we do at the Generations Project is paving the way for some of that, so it’s not as difficult or as challenging for us when we actually get there,” Morrissey continues. “That people will have an understanding and it won’t be such an uphill struggle. I truly believe that that’s going to be the case.”