When Linda Swanton had a heart attack, she realized senior care might be a challenge for her.
At 60, she had lived her life “in and out of the closet” as a lesbian, but when her partner was not allowed to come in the elevator with her at the emergency room, she knew the issues she may be facing were just beginning.
“At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what rights you have on paper – it comes down to what your doctor’s beliefs are at that time and, right there, you don’t have the strength to fight it,” says Swanton, now 64. “We’re a community that’s spent our whole lives fighting to be together.”
Four years ago, she created a group called South Island Pride specifically to address the issues that seniors living in the queer community face as they age.
The group has since turned its focus toward queer youth needs since Swanton left the helm last year.
Yet as Pride Week celebrates Victoria’s rainbow community from July 1 to 7, seniors living “out” with pride is still a largely undiscussed issue.
“People in this community are simply terrified of aging, and what it would mean to have to go into a (care) home, or not be allowed to live their lifestyles,” Swanton says.
“They would rather do anything than have to give up what they’ve worked so hard to achieve. There are suicides that go unreported over this issue.”
Ruth Simkin is an outspoken lesbian author and retired physician who understands these issues well.
She practised family medicine for 25 years in the community as an “out-of-the-closet” advocate.
Now 70, Simkin has compounding disabilities, but refuses to go into a care facility. The one time she tried, she got as far as signing the lease, but overwhelming anxiety and an understanding son helped her back out.
“I just knew, I absolutely couldn’t live there,” she says. “I like being in my home and I’m just more comfortable living out. Lying is a terrible thing.”
It’s a situation Swanton has seen play out before.
“This is largely what happens – friends looking after friends, because there are precious few other options in this city,” she says. “And it isn’t always the care staff people are worried about; it’s the people who will become your neighbours, how those folks feel about living beside ‘a queer’ and what that can mean.”
South Island Pride held a meeting series in 2010 to discuss options for elderly care. More than 40 people of all backgrounds attended the first session, yet with a sense of panic, people wanted answers, not discussion. With none available, no one turned up to the following meetings.
“The people who we see needing care now are people who, in their 20s and 30s, went through some pretty heavy stuff,” Swanton says. “They were the people on the front lines of ‘coming out,’ and whether or not our world has changed, they have not. They know the violence and brutality they’ve faced, and receiving care for them means going back into the closet.”
The News contacted over a dozen senior care facilities in the region, including independent living, assisted living and home care, and the responses were identical: no staff had ever heard of housing any clients from the gay or lesbian community. This isn’t so surprising, says Swanton, who reiterates the deeply historic privacy and secrecy of the lifestyle.
On the Island, seniors have little to reference other than the Residential Bill of Rights, which dictates that health, safety and dignity be paramount in care.
Norm Peters, director for Vancouver Island Health Authority’s Continuing Health Services Contracts, says the topic has never been brought up, but should be. Due to the inquiry from the News, he is examining the Toronto “LGBT Toolkit – For Creating Culturally Competent Care for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Persons,” and will bring Pride inclusion discussions up with two separate committees focused on ongoing care.
“We haven’t had these discussions yet, but it’s imperative that people feel safe where they live,” he says. “Making the choice for assisted living shouldn’t mean giving up your lifestyle.”
As Victoria’s population ages, Swanton says, these discussions can’t happen soon enough.
“People will do anything they can to not be separated. It doesn’t matter how they have to explain it,” she says. “But there is so much devastation in not being sure that person will be allowed to be there when you die, and it’s going to take a few generations for that to be resolved.”