What will LGBTQ seniors find in the Okanagan when they need to transition from independent living to assisted care? Wish them luck.
Imagine for a moment a transgender senior moving into assisted living or a long-term-care home (LTC), looking for appropriate gendered spaces, appropriate dress and pronouns, and trans competent medical care with access to hormone treatment. Considering that alone is enough to cause serious stress without factoring in wondering if the staff and residents will be transphobic.
Seniors who identify on the LGBTQ spectrum approaching this step in life’s journey have already had to deal with perhaps decades of discrimination and anxiety. Many of this generation have already faced discrimination and erasure in the healthcare system. Stepping into a heteronormative environment that is potentially hostile leaves people fearful.
According to research, approximately 6.7% of the population aged 65 and over, identify as “out” LGBTQ. The 2016 census data shows 453,425 people 65 years, and older live in the Central Okanagan. That equates to over 30,000 LGBTQ seniors, not including those who are not out.
Selection of appropriate public housing for residential or LTC is done by a caseworker. This housing in the Okanagan is overseen by the Interior Health Authority, and the quality of care provided is assessed through Accreditation Canada. There is no mention in the assessment or accreditation criteria of gender identity, sexual orientation, or transgender people. Interior Health also makes no mention of these topics in any of their web content regarding long-term care.
Speaking with local care workers in this industry, I have found two common threads. First, there appears to be no staff training on competent care for LGBTQ seniors. Secondly, there are no policies in place that must be adhered to by staff and other residents to create an inclusive and supportive housing experience. According to a study by Vancouver non-profit Qmunity, many facilities are adamant they don’t have any LGBTQ seniors. Their report states, “A lack of reliable numbers and knowledge around the needs of LGBTQ seniors means that facilities often cannot justify the associated cost of undertaking education or leadership to support a community, which they do not believe exists in their facilities. This practice perpetuates a cycle of invisibility and erasure for LGBTQ seniors.”
One local healthcare worker I spoke to said that LGBTQ seniors would likely be more comfortable living somewhere else than at the facility where she works. When I asked why she stated that one of the main reasons was the homophobia and transphobia of the residents. It was evidenced in their conversations, particularly in reactions to news and current events, as well as “dinner time jokes.”
What will it take to create change? Many of our seniors have been pioneers in advocacy to help our community when times were much different. Why should they be the ones to go through all of this again at a time in life when being uprooted from independent living is challenging enough? The Pride movement has been tremendously successful in effecting change. Perhaps it is time to march for our seniors.
Wilbur Turner (he/him), who identifies as gay and queer, is a Kelowna-based writer and advocate who has contributed on many levels to LGBTQ rights, both locally and internationally.