Years ago, Derrick Bishop and his young gay friends chatted about buying a big communal house for their senior years.
Derrick Bishop says some of the issues facing seniors who need long-term care are the same regardless of sexual orientation, but he’s hopeful inclusive policies will be in place soon. — Photo by Barb Sweet/The Telegram
It was the half-hearted answer to what they would do when they got old.
The times were different then — activists were still fighting for basic rights, like protection from getting fired for being “out.”
“Who could afford to buy a building lot in St. John’s now?” said Bishop, 59, whose thoughts returned a couple of years ago to the issue of how the community will meld into the long-term care setting.
Acquaintances were moving to Toronto for better access to health services and they’d also expressed concern about the lack of policies for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people (LGBT) in long-term care.
“I am sure there are people in nursing homes that are gay and lesbian, but I can’t think of anyone offhand,” said Bishop, echoing a sentiment expressed by activists who are working on the issue, but aren’t hearing directly from LGBT long-term care residents.
That could mean many have gone back in the closet in the homes, or were never out.
The issues for the LGBT community include acceptance by staff and other residents, the need to feel safe when they are vulnerable and recognition of their partners.
But other concerns apply to all senior couples — gay or straight, Bishop said. And that’s keeping couples together, sometimes difficult to do with waitlists.
“I think it’s a crime we have husbands and wives who have been together for 40 or 50 years and one of them becomes ill, they both end up in a home, but it could be in different communities,” he said.
And there are not enough affordable assisted living units, where seniors live independently in a complex or community, but are able to get the services they require.
He visited one of the more posh private complexes in St. John’s recently.
“I’d love to live there. It’s like a hotel, being on a cruise or something. But let’s face it, most people can’t afford that,” Bishop said.
Another issue for any senior — sexuality — is often swept under the rug, Bishop says.
“People, for some reason, stop being sexual when they reach a certain age. That’s the attitude a lot of people have. … I don’t think it’s just a problem for gays and lesbians. It’s a problem for seniors, period, that we discount people continuing to be sexual beings all their lives,” Bishop said.
LGBT policies in long-term care are among the issues the Aids Committee of Newfoundland and Labrador’s executive director Gerard Yetman and other activists have been working on.
Eastern Health is making an effort to identify and remove any issues that members of the LGBT community would encounter in long-term care.
In summer 2012, Eastern Health’s long-term care program started a sexuality and diversity working group to discuss and plan for care delivery in nursing and personal care homes.
A resource package and training program will be ready to roll out for some long-term care sites in the fall, an Eastern Health spokeswoman said in a statement to The Telegram.
The working group has also started to review and update client communications packages and policies to be more inclusive. For example, Eastern Health defines family as the person identified by the resident and not necessarily the biological relation.
Yetman hasn’t heard from any people living in the long-term care homes, nor are staff necessarily out, he said.
“Gays and lesbians weren’t just born yesterday,” he said, noting the silence among residents and staff and hoping LGBT staff members will help set a tone.
Some training was conducted in February with frontline long-term care workers and the eventual goal is to include facilities across the province.
The training will also help address issues for residents who are HIV-positive.
“Our goal is looking at how the system is structured, ensuring that if a HIV-positive person or a member of the LGBT community has to go wherever — when they don’t have a choice — that the facility has the proper policies and they receive services with dignity.”
Yetman said a lot of work has already been done on LGBT policies by St. Luke’s long-term care home in St. John’s.
Shari Ritter got involved about a year ago through friends Robert Nelder and Peter Lakin, a couple who have since moved back to Toronto and were concerned about experiences they were hearing about in long-term care across the continent.
“All over, there was this problem now where seniors who had been the activists in the ’60s and ’70s came out of the closet then, and now that they are aging in their senior years and trying to get into retirement homes or long-term care facilities, they were being discrimiated against by the staff,” said Ritter, who helped get people together locally to talk about the issue.
The AIDS committee also has a number of issues on the radar that focus on seniors, including housing needs and sexual health.
It’s planning a sexual health manual written by seniors for those older than 55.
The HIV infection rate is rising among seniors across the country — 18 per cent of new infections — because they are re-entering the dating pool after a divorce or death of a spouse and may not be aware of sexually transmitted diseases and how to protect themselves.