Nova Scotia

'The final closet': Researcher seeks solutions for long-term care for LGBTQ seniors

A Halifax researcher is heading across Canada this fall in an effort to find solutions to a fear among many LGBTQ seniors that if they go into long-term care, discrimination may force them back into the closet.

Many LGBTQ seniors fear they could face discrimination in their final years

Professor Jacqueline Gahagan of Dalhousie University is embarking on a national research project studying the housing needs of LGBTQ seniors. (Brian Mackay/CBC)

A Halifax researcher is heading across Canada this fall in an effort to find solutions to the fear among many LGBTQ seniors that if they go into long-term care, discrimination may force them back into the closet. 

"There's a lot of discussion about going into care as the final closet," said Jacqueline Gahagan, a professor and researcher of health promotion at Dalhousie University in Halifax. 

Gahagan said LGBTQ baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964 often faced discrimination in the workplace and at home. This is the generation that is now looking at where they will spend their final years, Gahagan said.

"The idea is to ensure that that same generation that fought for their basic human rights are not going to end up in the final closet." 

Gahagan is hopeful this is the moment when LGBTQ seniors' housing needs may finally start to be addressed. That's because of the federal government's National Housing Strategy, which promised to spend $40 billion over 10 years on housing. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the National Housing Strategy in November 2017. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Details announced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in November 2017 identified many vulnerable groups as top priorities for housing help, including LGBTQ seniors. 

However, in the report summarizing the strategy, the government admitted there are "significant gaps" in what the government knows about their housing needs. That's where Gahagan's research comes in. 

She sees the funding attached to the national strategy as her chance to make sure the needs of LGBTQ seniors are properly researched and understood by decision-makers.

"We have this opportunity through the National Housing Strategy with funding to move this [research] forward from 'What's the gap?' to 'Here's the gap, and here's the actionable outcome.'"

'We don't have any of those'

Anita Martinez, who will turn 80 in December, has given a lot of thought to where she will be spending her final years.

She is an avid photographer and an unofficial archivist of the LGBTQ community in Halifax. She thinks often about putting her belongings in order in case of a sudden illness or disability. 

"You have to face facts," she said. "Nobody gets out of here alive." 

She remembers the day, years ago, when she called a long-term care home tentatively inquiring whether they were LGBTQ-friendly. 

The answer was clearly no.

"I didn't ask if they have cats there or anything like that. It was humans - 'do you take any of that community?' And [the person on the phone] was like, 'Oh no, we don't have any of those."

"So it's a little discouraging," she said.

Anita Martinez, who will turn 80 in December, called a long-term care facility a few years ago to inquire about their friendliness to the LGBTQ community. The answer disappointed her. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

Martinez loves the housing co-op where she has lived for the last 32 years, and is hopeful that attitudes in long-term care facilities have changed since that discouraging conversation. 

Developing a plan

Starting in November, Jacqueline Gahagan will lead sessions on care for LGBTQ seniors in Halifax, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Calgary and Nanaimo, B.C. She will present research she has gathered from around the world, and will work with LGBTQ seniors' advocates to figure out which plans would work best in Canada. 

Some solutions are already becoming clear, such as giving more training to people who are working in long-term care facilities. Gahagan said there should be a national standard of cultural competency training for long-term care workers. 

She said having LGBTQ-friendly spaces within existing care homes is also important, as is building new and inclusive facilities. 

At Northwood, a Halifax long-term care home with two locations, more than 600 residents are already benefitting from Gahagan's research. 

Over the last 10 years, executive director Josie Ryan said the staff has made strides in becoming more LGBTQ-friendly. All staff receives diversity training, and the home makes its stance known with acts like raising the rainbow flag and marching in the city's annual Pride parade. 

Josie Ryan is the executive director of Northwood, a long-term care facility in Halifax. (Brian Mackay/CBC)

"I think our policies were good, but we absolutely needed to tweak them," Ryan said. "And they have to continue to tweak as things change." 

Ryan said Northwood staff try to educate residents where needed, such as in a case where an LGBTQ resident might need to share a room with a straight resident. They try to make sure the two people are a good match and that the LGBTQ resident feels safe. If not, they will find a different match. 

Even small things such as the Northwood intake form have been adjusted. 

"Like 'Mr.' and 'Mrs': If you put that on a form, somebody could be uncomfortable if that's not how they identify themselves ... So there should either be another [form], or don't ask it at all," Ryan said.

She said that for a lot of people, long-term care "is their last journey." And Ryan feels that a person shouldn't have to hide their true identity at that point in their lives. 

"If your last journey has to be as someone else, it's pretty devastating. And we don't want to provide care like that."

About the Author

Shaina Luck

Reporter

Shaina Luck covers everything from court to city council. Her favourite stories are about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Email: shaina.luck@cbc.ca