A new study from McGill University shows that gay and lesbian seniors are likely to face discrimination from their caregivers.
The study, released in March, is based on interviews with Montreal, Vancouver and Halifax seniors and health providers about their home-care workers.
“We hadn’t really considered the impact of someone coming into their home who’s discriminatory,” says coauthor Shari Brotman, a professor at McGill’s school of social work. “Here they have someone coming into their home, which has always been a safe space for them. If you can’t escape discrimination at home, where can you escape it?”
The study reports seniors being mistreated if their sexual orientation became known, of lovers having to pretend to be siblings or close friends and of one senior having to deal with a healthcare worker bringing a Bible and offering to “save me from this blasphemous thing.”
Brotman also says that many of today’s queer seniors have spent their lives afraid of being open about their sexuality, even in their healthcare.
“Their experience of discrimination has made them wary of seeking help. They spent their youth and much of their adult life prior to the advent of the gay liberation movement.”
The study did show that many seniors find it easier to be open about their sexuality once they hit retirement and no longer care what people think. But those were still fearful of having to enter nursing homes or institutions.
Brotman says the study’s authors found it hard to include nursing homes in the study.
“We did call nursing homes, all of whom said, ‘No, we have no gay and lesbian residents, it’s not our focus.’ We had a lot of phones slammed down on us.”
Brotman has done previous work on gay and lesbian health issues, but says she realized that senior care had been largely overlooked. Ignorance is a key part of the problem.
“In gerontology, we’re behind the general healthcare system in terms of sexual orientation. You can still get through a university program without hearing about sexual orientation.”
Gens Hellquist, executive director of the Canadian Rainbow Health Coalition, a national organization looking at queer healthcare, says the training needs to improve.
“A lot of people who work in nursing homes have training that comes from community colleges, only two-year programs. I’ve heard of one instructor doing a class on trans issues, who told students to skip it if they were offended.”
But both Brotman and Hellquist say that the queer community in general has to shoulder some of the blame for the situation.
“We built a community,” says Hellquist. “If you look at facilities, they tend to be built for young people.”
Brotman says seniors’ problems are often worsened because they feel isolated from the wider community.
“They experience a lack of welcoming in the gay and lesbian community. One health worker told us about one of his clients. He said it was so sad to see him go to a bar and sit by himself and drink by himself and not have anyone talk to him, and see him come home and cry.”
But Brotman says that as more out queers reach retirement age, things might change.
“People who have spent their lives being open, they’re not going to easily go back into the closet.”