Gay seniors go back to the closet as age care providers shun their needs

La Trobe University researcher Dr Catherine Barrett and Melbourne-based gay rights groups have gone public with a shocking report on the social health landscape for gay and other non-heterosexual seniors in Victoria.

The researchers have published their initial findings from a qualitative study of the experiences of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender seniors receiving aged care services in Victoria.

Commissioned by the Melbourne-based gay and lesbian not-for-profit activist groups Matrix Guild Victoria Inc and Vintage Men Inc., and funded by the Reichstein Foundation, My People is the frontispiece of a four-stage research program to collect evidence and identify strategies to lead aged care reforms.

The report My People – a Project exploring the experiences of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Seniors in Aged Care Services - foreshadows a blueprint for urgent reform in defence of the human rights of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transsexuals and inter-sex seniors dealing with discrimination and invisibility in Australia’s aged care sector.

It reveals the hidden terror confronting gay baby-boomers and other older seniors who are not sexually mainstream – the prospect of confinement to the darkest closet of their lives: old age in Australia in the 21st century.

For many among this sexual minority group, it seems, even those long "out of the closet", impending old age means going back in again – or risk being deprived of companionship and quality care when they need it most, by heterosexual carers in a system that does not know or care about their special needs.

The report reveals a burgeoning aged care services sector ignorant of the invisible matrix of fear, dependence and discrimination afflicting potentially up to *11 per cent of its clients – those referred to by acronym as "GLBTI (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex) seniors." (*reflects the 8-11 % of general population believed to be not exclusively heterosexual, according to the Australian Medical Association, 2002.)

It includes graphic reports of the experiences of GLBTI seniors trying to negotiate their care, usually by closeting their sexual identities, but sometimes "coming out" with carers they believe have shown empathy - and suggests some providers may also be breaking the law, breaching any of several Acts of legislation that prohibit discriminating against people on the basis of sexuality or gender.

Supported by The Victorian AIDS Council, The Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives, The Victorian Equal Opportunity & Human Rights Commission, The Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit and Elder Abuse Prevention Unit with the Victoria Police, and La Trobe University’s Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS), the research was conducted by La Trobe University researcher Dr Catherine Barrett, from the ARCSHS.

Dr Barrett interviewed 19 GLBTI recipients of aged care services in Victoria - including nine receiving home care, five in nursing homes, two in hostels, two in day care centres and one in a psycho-geriatric residential care facility – and families, friends and carers of some seniors who could not speak on their own behalf.

Most said they could not be themselves, they were forced to hide their true sexual identities. Many recounted threats, harassment, ridicule and/or invasion of privacy, sometimes from staff or carers, sometimes from other residents. Most expressed some form of grief, loneliness or depression and a longing for intimacy, physical contact or sex.

Although some aged care providers do respect and protect GLBTI groups, the report says, most are unaware of them, or ignoring their emotional, physical and psychological needs, indirectly confining them to the closet.

The research identified many recurring issues, including: historically-based fear of retribution; closeting as a consequence of discrimination; depression, stress, and unmet care needs; discrimination resulting from accidental "outing"; negative impact of dementia, especially on partners; the significance of sexual and cultural expression to seniors’ mental health; diminished or inadequate standards of care resulting from discrimination; and GLBTI perceptions of a GBLTI-friendly and safe environment.

Principal researcher Dr Barrett says the study was initiated in response to anecdotal reports of discrimination against sexual minorities in aged care – and the blanket of silence that perpetuates it.

The results from the second stage of the project – Determining Strategies to Improve Aged Care Services for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Seniors - are also expected to be released soon.

The project is very socially and culturally progressive research, according to Project Coordinator Jane Kent, of Matrix Guild Vic Inc. While restricted to Victoria, the researchers believe the results are likely to be typical of the aged care scene across Australia.

The Director of Gay and Lesbian Health Victoria, Associate Professor Anne Mitchell, of the Division of Health Research ARCSHS, La Trobe, commended the report.

"This is qualitative and pioneering research that confirms anecdotal reports of the frightening consequences of being old and gay in Australia if you are dependent on aged care - discrimination, isolation, fear, sub-standard care, and abuse. It also identifies the solution: education of carers and providers to recognise the unique needs of GLTBI seniors, and the provision of GLBTI-friendly facilities and services to ensure they are met."

You can view the full report in PDF format.

Interviews on request.

Media contacts

Dr Catherine Barrett

Principal Researcher, Community Liaison Officer

Australian Research Centre in Sex Health and Society (ARCSHS)
La Trobe University

Ms Jane Kent

Project Coordinator

Matrix Guild Victoria Inc.