Aging and Acceptance: Finding Community for Older LGBTQ Persons

By Sophie Beaton
Social Connectedness Fellow 2018

The thought of leaving the comfort of one’s own home to move into an assisted living facility can feel both intimidating and isolating for anybody. For LGBTQ individuals, these fears can be intensified by the impending possibility of experiencing discrimination and abuse at the hands of their new caretakers and fellow community members.

As a result of a lifetime of stigma and bias, older LGBTQ individuals are more likely to grow old without the support of a partner or child. Thus, they are more likely to experience higher rates of depression, loneliness and isolation, which may result in reduced life expectancy relative to non-LGBTQ individuals​1. Moreover, this isolation results in a heightened vulnerability, given that older LGBTQ individuals become increasingly reliant on their caregivers​.

This increased dependence is concerning in the face of numerous instances across North America in which caregivers who held anti-gay sentiments, were physically or psychologically abusive towards their LGBTQ patients. One of these cases, reported by CTV, was that of Marsha Wetzel, who moved into Glen St. Andrew Living Community after her partner of 30 years died. There, she was subjected to relentless bullying because of her sexual orientation​. Unfortunately, Wetzel’s experience is all too common for LGBTQ persons who move into assisted living communities. Many report feeling required to “straighten up” in order to avoid discrimination and potential abuse​. 

The numerous cases of discrimination against LGBTQ persons in older persons care facilities indicate that a shift in attitudes and practices in old age facilities is essential if LGBTQ individuals are to be given a fair chance at experiencing social connectedness and sustaining a high quality of life. This will require innovative policies and programs that will need to tackle long-held and heavily ingrained beliefs.

On the bright side, a variety of organizations across Canada have taken it upon themselves to provide a better opportunity for inclusion of older LGBTQ persons. One such initiative is the Positive Space Initiative, by the Rainbow Resource Centre, which seeks to provide older LGBTQ individuals with an affordable and accepting senior housing community. Mike Tutthill, the Executive Director of the Rainbow Resource Centre, says that the vision for the project is to build “55-plus mixed use seniors complex with 90 to 120 housing units. It could include a brand new resource centre, retail, health clinic, and common area for residents to share their common life experiences”.

Another initiative working towards the inclusion of older LGBTQ people is a new ​partnership between Rainbow Refugee, the City of Vancouver and a non-profit housing society. Through it, Rainbow Refugee was able to obtain affordable housing units for LGBTQ refugees. Finding housing for LGBTQ refugees is incredibly important as these individuals are likely facing violence and persecution in their home countries and thus, tend to be isolated from vital social support systems​.

Going forward, the creation of inclusive care facilities will be vital in alleviating social isolation among older LGBTQ persons. In the short term, a first and essential step will be an increase in funding for such initiatives so that members of the LGBTQ community are granted equal access to elderly care. This will not only provide them with the assistance they need but also enable the community to develop positive associations with older persons care facilities. In the long term, care facilities should implement programs and policies that work to mend broken relationships between caregivers, non-LQBTQ members and the LGBTQ community. In this way, all elderly communities can become places of connectedness and acceptance such that no one will be left feeling that only option to age safely is to do so in isolation.