British Columbia·Gay and Grey

Lesbian seniors turn to friends for care and support

An elderly lesbian couple from Vancouver has been turning to a network of friends — mostly younger lesbians — for support as they deal with dementia.

Chris Morrissey and Bridget Coll rely on a network of friends of all ages to help

Chris Morrissey and Bridget Coll rely on a network of friends for help. (Lisa Christiansen)

An elderly lesbian couple from Vancouver has been turning to a network of friends — mostly younger lesbians — for support as they deal with dementia. 

Bridget Coll is forgetting a lot these days. But there's something she remembers clearly.

"My life is wonderful. Chris has been my partner for 37 years," Coll said, referring to her partner Chris Morrissey sitting nearby. 

Chris and Bridget count on younger friends like Kat Fobear. (Lisa Christiansen)

After nearly four decades together, the aging couple is now dealing with Coll's dementia diagnosis.

"This is my personal calendar," said Morrissey, pulling up a schedule on her computer. "And these are all the dates I need some help with."

Morrissey showed a list of about 25 names — all people who are willing to watch over Coll when Morrissey needs to leave the house.

 Kat Fobear, 29, is one of them.

"It takes a village to love a Bridget," said Fobear jokingly.

Creating communities of care

Brian de Vries, a gerontologist who researches lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender seniors, says many lesbians turn to their friends for support as they age. 

"There was some research recently that showed older lesbians had greater success at trying to create communities of care wherein they'd be able to support each other," said de Vries. 

Morrissey is an LGBT activist who started the organization LEGIT to help same-sex couples with immigration. She speaks freely about her sexuality. Now, she is also speaking about mental health.

"Many of us have gone through the process of coming out in terms of our sexual orientation or gender identity," said Morrissey. "But dementia and Alzheimer's is another whole area that often remains closeted."

Coll is committed to speaking out as well. 

"I have dementia," she said. "Before I couldn't say the word because I was ashamed of it. But now I can do it, and it's a freedom I have." 

Care homes mean back to the closet for many

Bridget Coll is fortunate to have the support she needs to live at home for now. Many other LGBT seniors, however, remain fearful of moving into seniors' facilities because they distrust the care system. 

"Unfortunately, needing to go into some kind of long-term care facility will result in requiring them to be more hidden," said Shari Brotman, a researcher in social work at McGill University.

"They grew up in a time period where having a same-sex sexual attraction was considered a mental illness. So a lot of people who grew up [then] experience the health care system as quite a threat."

Brotman said care facilities struggle with sexuality in straight seniors, let alone in LGBT seniors. 

"The reality is, for long-term care, is we don't address sexuality in general very well. We see sexuality as a pathology or problem that needs to be dealt with."

However, she said some senior care workers, especially in Vancouver and Toronto, are working hard to improve the situation. 

"It's very common to ask a man if they have a wife or ask a woman if they have a husband," said Brotman.

Instead, she suggests care workers should ask questions like, "Who are the people that are most important to you? Who would you like to be involved in your decision making?"

Brotman said there are facilities in Toronto that celebrate gay pride day, host gay movie nights, and invite volunteers from the local LGBT community to the facility to create an atmosphere of openness.

"I think it's our responsibility to create that environment of openness because this group of older adults will not make demands on the system for themselves." 

CBC Radio's Lisa Christiansen reflects on Coll and Morrissey

CBC Radio's Lisa Christiansen spent an afternoon with Coll and Morrissey for On The Coast's "Gay and Grey" documentary series. 

"Even though Bridget and Chris still share a house in Vancouver, they really inhabit very different places. But there are those moments, the ones you catch if you watch them together," reflected Christiansen.

"Chris takes Bridget's hand. Bridget seems frail and childlike, but she knows who Chris is. She's the woman that brought her to Canada, who changed her life and lived with her through monumental cultural changes. Chris listens and nods and promises again and again they will go to the library soon." 

"The changes in Bridget aren't slow. Chris notices them daily. They are still very much in love."

On The Coast is on weekdays on CBC Radio One from 3 to 6 p.m. in Metro Vancouver.

Stephen Quinn will examine challenges affecting LGBT seniors all week in a special series Gay and Grey. Following the discussion on Twitter, using the hashtag #gayandgrey.


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