New P.E.I. project to support LGBT seniors with dementia

A new program is being developed to help seniors in P.E.I. who identify as LGBT transition to a long-term care setting like a nursing home, especially those with dementia.

'We don't do anything to make them comfortable or feel like they can speak openly or freely'

'Safety and inclusiveness, that's the whole goal at the end of the day,' says Corinne Hendricken-Eldershaw , CEO of the Alzheimer Society of P.E.I. (William Perugini/Shutterstock)

A new program is being developed to help seniors in P.E.I. who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer transition to a long-term care setting like a nursing home, especially those with dementia. 

The Alzheimer Society of P.E.I. received almost $25,000 from the federal government's New Horizons Seniors Program in January for the project, called Diversity 101, which will be used, at first, in three long-term care facilities on the Island.  

"Safety and inclusiveness, that's the whole goal at the end of the day," said Corrine Hendricken-Eldershaw, CEO of the society. 

Hendricken-Eldershaw, UPEI diversity and social justice student Grace Wedlake and Alana DesRoche, the director of care at Andrews of Summerside, have just embarked on the project, which they believe will take about a year to develop.

They plan to create an educational presentation on LGBT seniors for health-care providers, and one for care facility residents, to learn more about the LGBT community. They'll also suggest policy changes for institutions to make their facilities safer and more inclusive for LGBT residents and their families.

These issues are going to come up and we need to know how to deal with them.— Alana DesRoche

The society saw the need for the program when providing education to families and those diagnosed with dementia — LGBT seniors were entering long-term care facilities and expressing concerns about a variety of things including being judged, or describing their gender.

"People do go back in [the closet], that's exactly what happens," Hendricken-Eldershaw said. 

People diagnosed with dementia also expressed worry about "outing" themselves or their partner who hasn't publicly identified as gay or lesbian as the disease progresses, she said. 

"There are some other additional fears that happen when you add dementia to that journey," Hendricken-Eldershaw said. 

'I'd like to do better'

DesRoche said she hasn't had any experience with LGBT residents at Andrews, but described an incident with a dementia patient described by another facility director. She didn't say where the incident happened.

"It was a man, and he was insisting on wearing women's clothes," DesRoche said. "The staff really did not know how to handle that. It caused a lot of upset for the resident, upset for the staff."

Ultimately, staff at the facility decided what was best for the man was to dress how he wished, Desroche said.

"It was a lot of education for them, and I think that these issues are going to come up and we need to know how to deal with them." 

Even though Andrews has a rainbow sticker on the door to welcome all sexual orientations and genders, DesRoche said it's not clear what that means — facilities like hers simply need to know more about the LGBT community.

"The more we can be educated and understand, the more we can provide the care the residents need and deserve," Desroche said. 

"We don't do anything to make them comfortable or feel like they can speak openly or freely — so I'd like to do better." 

Not talked about

Diversity and social justice student Grace Wedlake worked with the Alzheimer's Society the past two summers, and the testimony of LGBT seniors' fears moved her to want help develop the new project.  

"Fears that they'll have to go back in the closet or hide their identity — I recognized this is not something that we talked about really. So I think it's important that we do so and create an inclusive and supportive environment for these identities," Wedlake said. 

They plan to look at what's available and seen as best practice for LGBT seniors in other jurisdictions worldwide, and consult Islanders including seniors and LGBT interest groups. 

The Alzheimer Society developed a small introduction to the topic last year, presenting it to about 60 caregivers who deal with dementia patients — who all agreed they wanted more education.  

"I don't think this is rocket science, or complicated," Hendricken-Eldershaw said. Some of the solutions could be as simple as changing admissions forms to ask patients and their families a few more questions, such as what is the person's preferred pronoun — he, she or they?

Some of the other projects for seniors that each received grants of up to $25,000 from New Horizons in January include Recreation PEI, the Arthritis Society and PEI Curling Association projects relating to seniors' fitness,  the PEI Senior Citizens' Federation for a journaling program, and The Voluntary Resource Council for a project to engage seniors in electoral change.  

About the Author

Sara Fraser

Web Journalist

Sara is a P.E.I. native who graduated from the University of King's College in Halifax. N.S., with a Bachelor of Journalism (Honours) degree. She's worked with CBC Radio and Television since 1988, moving to the CBC P.E.I. web team in 2015, focusing on weekend features. email sara.fraser@cbc.ca