Column 7 – Understanding the Challenges of Gay and Lesbian Seniors

I recently read a news story from Ontario about gay and transgender seniors being afraid of being admitted to long term care. People shared their stories of being mistreated throughout their lives and said they were afraid it would start all over again if they went to live in a nursing home – it was a very sad story. One man shared how through his entire high school years, grades seven to 12, he ate lunch all alone and was ignored, so he was afraid that would happen to him again.
I had the opportunity to see the film ‘GenSilent’ a few years ago and although I had already viewed it through a work event, when I saw it for the second time I got even more out of it. This hour-long video is a documentary that follows the lives of a few people over a period of about a year. The stories are filled with determination, love, compassion and caring; people share their history, their lives, their loves and how they coped in the face of challenges that made their past battles seem trivial.
These people were aging, some not as well as others. In one instance a couple was very reluctantly separated after one had cared for the other for more than 40 years in the home they shared. When more in-depth care was needed he moved into long-term care and he was provided with excellent care and love until the end, all the while being visited regularly by his partner. The movie shared interviews with how these two persons remained a couple, despite living in different homes. The difficulties were shared and the raw emotions were exposed.
Another couple received home care twice as one became ill after taking care of the other. Again, the challenges and blessings were shared with love and compassion. This story showed just how important a caregiver who is truly open and respectful can make a true difference in the life of a person requiring care.
A third couple shared how they prepared their home in order to accommodate them both as they aged. They were determined to never need to move away from their beloved home, pets, neighbours and friends and their community was essential to their aging well. These two women had wonderful humour and determination that I hope resulted in them living to the end as they chose.
Along with dealing with old age and illnesses each of these couples has something else in common, they are gay. These seniors had lived through earlier times when being gay was against the law. Even though they were law abiding, hard working, contributing members of society, their love and devotion was not recognized as being acceptable.
The last individual whose story was shared was a person who was very challenged with a critical condition and a lack of support around her. She was fiercely independent and remained at home while using oxygen for as long as she could without help, and then she had volunteers rally around her so she could go back home as her condition got better and then worsened again. This woman was transgendered (a person who is biologically seen as one sex, but feels their true self is the opposite sex) and she had lived an unhappy life until she finally accepted who she really was. Still, as a parent, a friend and a veteran she was isolated from those who meant the most to her because of who she was.
This film is accurately titled as these people lived during a time when they were silent about who they were and who they loved, solely because of fear – fear they would be harmed, fear they would be rejected and fear they would be arrested.
As we care for our gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and intersex (GLBTI) seniors we need to be sure that they know that they are respected and cared for. This film is one of the many tools available to help care providers to better understand more about their community and the diversity within that community. The importance of openly advocating for full and equal inclusion of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex seniors is obvious to many members of our society and through education, we can only hope it becomes understandable and normal to everyone.

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