For many older people, the decision to move into residential care can trigger stress, sadness and fear. ‘Downsizing’ means people may mourn the loss of physical possessions such as the family home and personal belongings; some will also mourn the perceived loss of independence.
Recent research studies by LaTrobe University and organisations such as BeyondBlue have found the stress of entering residential care is even greater for older LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) people.
Equitable care for older LGBTI people is one area being considered by Rowena Allen, Victoria’s first Gender and Sexuality Commissioner. She said her department will follow the work already undertaken by Uniting AgeWell.
“That’s an area of your life where you’re very vulnerable. You could live with someone for 40 years and in the twilight years be separated because you’re too scared to say that you’re a couple,” Ms Allen said.
“The Uniting Church is doing fantastic work in this area in aged care; they have broken all the barriers. They are the first faith-based community service organisation to run training for all of their aged care staff on how to work with gay and lesbian people.”
Rev John Clarke is the director of mission at Uniting AgeWell. He said it is important to acknowledge the discriminatory treatment older LGBTI people may have experienced throughout their lives, with many suffering or fearing stigma, rejection or persecution.
“Sadly, a recent La Trobe University study found many older LGBTI people fear discrimination from aged care and health service providers and avoid accessing vital services,” Mr Clarke said.
“Our industry champions respecting each person and ‘meeting your individual needs’, but ignorance of the needs and feelings of LGBTI people can cut across our best intentions. For example something as simple as filling out a form with only male or female options can be a challenge for some people.
“Uniting AgeWell recognises that LGBTI ageing is a unique and important experience requiring a considered, consultative and systemic approach.”
Research funded by BeyondBlue found that the idea of ‘institutional’ care could elicit stress and anxiety in LGBTI people who, for most of their lives, were considered criminal or mentally ill. Institutions were places LGBTI people were sent to be punished for, or cured of, their ‘sexual deviance’.
The other issue to emerge from the research was that habits of a lifetime are hard to break. People who have hidden or denied their sexuality from all but their closest friends will find it difficult disclosing details to staff and other residents when they enter aged care.
This is particularly relevant considering the age group of those living in care. Having grown up in a time when any deviation from social norms was considered immoral, many residents of care homes might be openly homophobic towards their LGBTI neighbours.
Mr Clarke said the steps Uniting AgeWell has taken to ensure the organisation provides LGBTI-friendly services highlights how the philosophy and ethos of the Church is lived out in the services offered.
“As part of the Uniting Church, we have a long history of providing services for older people irrespective of their faith, cultural background, gender or sexual identity,” Mr Clarke said.
“We share the Church’s spirit of embracing diversity, respecting differences, being open to discuss controversial issues and what it means to be inclusive of all people.
“Real change is already underway. We know we can always do more. But as we continue to follow the core values of our organisation – respect, fairness, partnership, wisdom and stewardship – we can strive to offer open hearts and capable hands to older people from the LGBTI community.”