Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, ep_jhu.

It’s a poignant memory for Brian Hobbs – one that captures some of the challenges facing older members of the LGBTQ community in Canada.

Two of Hobbs’ close friends, a gay couple in their 80s, had to make tough decisions when one of them was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and placed in a long-term care facility about 45-minute drive outside Ottawa, where his partner arranged to live on his own. “Each Wednesday I’d drive my friend to see his partner, whom he missed terribly,” recalls Hobbs. “They wanted so much to embrace and cuddle and be close to one another during those visits. I recall the first time they asked me: ‘Could you stand in the doorway and if a support worker or nurse walks by, could you signal us so they don’t see the two of us hugging or holding each other?’”

“Many LGBTQ seniors find they have to go back into the closet to avoid discrimination and ostracization in long-term care homes and other centres that are meant to be places of support.”

Hobbs’ friends wouldn’t have been alone in their fear. Surveys conducted by Edmonton Seniors Coordinating Council through SAGE and Ottawa Senior Pride Network reveal that LGBTQ ages 60+ in Canada are “concerned about loneliness and isolation and the fear of being able to be open and honest about their identities. Some are concerned that being out in a residential home setting may affect the standard and level of care they receive.”

LGBTQ couples may face discrimination and a return to living a closeted life in some retirement communities or long-term facilities.Photo: Flickr/CreativeCommons, Nathan Rupert.

Egale Canada, a national organization committed to advancing equality and justice for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-identified people, undertook a community consultation last year to identify the most pressing issues facing LGBTQ seniors across Canada. More than half of senior respondents and two-thirds of service providers agreed that the biggest issue facing LGBTQ people is the fear of being “re-closeted in residential care” in the later years of their life.

Hobbs hears this frequently in his role as a trainer with Ottawa Senior Pride Network where he’s part of a group of volunteers who facilitate workshops and sensitivity training seminars to help long-term care, retirement centre and hospital staff learn how to better care for LGBTQ residents or patients. 

“Understanding the fear many LGBTQ seniors live with is crucial to their overall well-being,” says Hobbs. “LGBTQ seniors who are now in their 70s and 80s quite possibly encountered discrimination and ostracization during their coming-out. As volunteer trainers, we go in and educate staff how to treat LGBTQ seniors with respect and dignity – just as they would any other resident or patient.” 

With training, staff at long-term facilities can ensure LGBTQ members feel welcome and free from discrimination. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Can Pac Swire.

Nancy*, who identifies as lesbian, chose not to share her sexual orientation when she moved into a long-term care facility in Toronto in early 2017: “I lived openly as a lesbian for 30 years – but there’s conservative tone at this nursing home from residents and staff that worries me. They keep asking about my ‘fellow.’ The truth is, I lived with my partner Yvonne for 24 years – but sharing that information could jeopardize my daily life here. So despite being openly lesbian for a few decades, I’ve had to become secretive again – something I never expected.”

Teachable moments

Hobbs, 69, helped launched the Ottawa Senior Pride Network training program in 2008. He was nervous the first time he stood in front of a group of nursing home staff and talked to them about LGBTQ lifestyles. “I wasn’t all that out during my 40-year career in government,” he says. “It was a different time. Homosexuality was only decriminalized in 1969 and when I was a teenager it was still classified as a mental disorder. I lived through an era when members of the military and civil service lost their jobs for being homosexual. Sharing these facts helps healthcare workers better understand the fear and worry that grips many LGBTQ seniors in their 70s and 80s.”

The training sessions, sometimes attended by funeral home staff, college nursing students and others who care for seniors, last two to three hours. “We typically start with a 15-minute film called Project Visibility, which features real LGBTQ seniors talking about their challenges in long-term care centres. We include a segment on LGBTQ history in Canada – as experienced by many of the seniors in their care – and then present case studies which the participants discuss amongst themselves.”

Research shows that members of the LGBTQ community fear having to hide their sexuality in long-term care. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Daveynin.

Hobbs says the questions and comments that arise are educational and often eye-opening for participants: “Do you automatically assume a resident’s late partner was a certain gender? What happens in a long-term care facility when someone tells a gay joke? Do admission forms allow for the fact that the senior may have a same-sex partner, or perhaps identifies as transgender?”  

“It’s a privilege for me to do this work,” says Hobbs. “My reward is when a health-care worker from a long-term care centre comes up to me at the end of a session and says, ‘I was never aware of those issues facing LGBTQ seniors.  What I learned today will help me immensely in my job.’”

Hobbs acknowledges there’s a lot of work to be done and says funding for his organization continues to be a challenge. Yet, he’s pleased with some of the changes he’s observed: “A few retirement centres in Ottawa, for instance, now post the rainbow flag and more healthcare institutions have developed policies concerning the care of LGBTQ seniors. We now get inquiries from organizations across Canada who want to set up similar LGBTQ sensitivity and awareness programs to better serve seniors. More organizations like ours means LGBTQ seniors stand a better chance of living proudly and less fearful as they age. That’s something everyone deserves.” 

For a list of additional resources, visit Ottawa Senior Pride Network. 

*Surname held upon request

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Doug O'Neill
O’Neill, formerly Executive Editor of Canadian Living, writes on all manner of topics for a variety of Canadian publications – but has a preference for storytelling that gets to the heart of things. “Writing about journeys has always fascinated me,'” says contributor Doug O’Neill, “whether I’m scribbling about my own travels around the world or about other people’s inspiring journeys as they navigate from one life stage to another.”