In Focus: LGBTI Aged Care
There have been strides in attending to the needs of older Australians but when it comes to LGBTI seniors, there’s still a long way to go. As NSW marks Seniors Week 2012, Serkan Ozturk looks at the challenges facing older members of the LGBTI community.
As NSW celebrates Seniors Week 2012 over the next seven days, this year’s ‘Live Life’ festivities mark the first time that issues affecting LGBTI seniors have been officially broached by major governmental departments and bodies, with the last 12 months heralding major positive steps for the increasing visibility of the elders of our queer community.
Although their voices may now be getting a hearing by those in the corridors of powers, for the approximate 250,000 people across Australia and more than 70,000 people in NSW over the age of 55 who identify as LGBTI, concerns still linger about superannuation and partner benefits, aged care services as well as ageism which, unfortunately, continue to exist within our own community.
The release of last year’s groundbreaking Caring For Older Australians report from the Productivity Commission included, for the first time, specific reference to the challenges facing LGBTI seniors as they weigh up options for in-home or residential nursing home care.
Warren Talbot, general manager of the National LGBTI Health Alliance, told SX that until the report’s release there had never been official recognition of LGBTI older people at the national level.
“A major issue of concern has been the invisibility of LGBTI people in policy discussions about ageing and aged care.”
Many of the current generation of LGBTI seniors are without children, and some are also estranged from their families, while research shows that up to 90 per cent of older gay men live alone.
Due to having lived a large part of their lives under a climate where laws stated their sexuality and relationships were illegal and classified as a mental illness, it remains difficult for many to be open about their identity and relationships when coming face-to-face with aged care providers – the overwhelming majority of which are faith-based or operated by religious organisations.
Seventy-eight-year-old Dorothy McRae-McMahon, an openly lesbian deacon at Pitt Street Uniting Church for 10 years before retiring, told SX that a lack of cultural sensitivity and related LGBTI policies shown by many aged care providers placed an extra burden during the later stages of life.
“When you are struggling with age and health issues, this is the very time when you long to have your partner close to you and, for many of us, asking for that right may feel risky,” McRae-McMahon said.
“If you strike the wrong staff people, then, quite apart from possibly not getting what you hope for in access and possibly sharing a bed (especially if you are gay), the vulnerability of your partner may be increased.”
ACON, the National LGBTI Health Alliance and others have indicated that current legislation which allows religious organisations the ability to discriminate against LGBT seniors will need to be overcome if there is to be widespread and effective change in the sector.
In the meantime, innovative companies such as CareConnect in Queensland are beginning to offer packages specifically aimed at LGBTI older adults, while work is due to commence shortly on Australia’s first LGBTI-friendly retirement village in Ballan, Victoria.
Support has also come from Mental Health and Ageing Minister, Mark Butler, who said after the historic National LGBTI Ageing Roundtable held last October that there was an “urgent need” for a national LGBTI ageing strategy and for national accreditation standards that ensure LGBTI elders receive “the same rights to privacy, dignity and culturally appropriate services”.
There does exist the danger however that some of the mooted recommendations listed in the Caring For Older Australians report will negatively affect some older LGBTI couples.
Ken Lovett, a openly gay aged-pensioner from Melbourne, told SX that couples on pensions, such as he and his partner, would be worse off under attempts to transform the sector into more of a market-based user-pays system.
“Since July 2009, when the changes to the Commonwealth Government’s discriminatory laws against same-sex relationships took effect, my partner and I became a de facto couple. Centrelink thus had the power to reduce our pensions as though we were a married couple which we are not,” Lovett said.
“However, when it comes to requiring home or residential care, we are to be forced to take out a reverse mortgage on our small home if the Productivity Commission recommendations are adopted by Government, because we haven’t got any other adequate assets.
“If my partner and I were not open about our sexuality and relationship ... would someone who I referred to as my ‘friend’ or ‘companion’ be afforded the same protection regarding reverse mortgage debt as someone of ‘protected status’?”
Leading LGBTI ageing expert, University of South Australia gerontologist, Dr Jo Harrison, told SX that such grievances were very real and that events such as Seniors Week provided a perfect opportunity to help place LGBTI elders at the centre, rather than at the periphery of our community’s response to ageing concerns.
“LGBTI elders themselves are the experts on the experience of ageing and ageism. There would be no aged care sector without them. Their expertise and narratives are our community’s most powerful weapon against ageism. Their input as experts is the key to the development of policies, programs and services that are appropriate and effective,” Harrison said.
“We need to primarily do this in the context of constantly challenging ageism when it rears its ugly head in our midst. We need to do this through concerted formal and informal education and self-awareness within our community about ageist attitudes and the harm they cause.”
As seen from earlier battles to decriminalise homosexuality and the fight against the AIDS epidemic, Harrison believes the LGBTI community must remain committed to the ideals of ‘nothing about us without us’ if it is to be serious about eradicating ageism and improving the quality of life for our senior citizens.
[Pictured] Dorothy McRae-McMahon and Ali Blogg. Photo: Kevin Blogg
NSW Seniors Week runs from March 18-25. Go to www.nswseniorsweek.com.au