Long-time companions

Nichola Lavin is a researcher for Help and Care, a
Dorset-based charity working with older people and carers. She has
a particular interest in supporting and empowering vulnerable
individuals and groups through the research process. Before joining
Help and Care in 2003, she was a personal adviser for

Until recently the needs of older lesbians and gay men have
remained largely unexplored, mainly because they have constituted a
hidden population. Many older people grew up and grew old in a
society where homosexuality was illegal and considered immoral.
Despite the more enlightened attitudes that exist today, the
deep-seated impact of this condemnation, along with an internalised
homophobia, will ensure that many older lesbians and gay men prefer
to keep their sexuality secret.

For others, however, involvement in the gay rights movement has
brought a freedom that they will not easily forgo in their older
years. The visibility of older lesbians and gay men looks likely to
increase as society becomes more accepting, and services must
respond appropriately to the needs of this population.

To work effectively with this group of people, professionals need
to have an awareness of their unique difficulties. One of the
biggest problems is the lack of legal recognition for same-sex
couples, which can have a significant impact on inheritance,
pensions, health care and residential care, as follows:

  • A partner’s death can cause additional trauma for older
    lesbians and gay men, as partners registering the death of a loved
    one can be recorded only as “present” and not as a partner. Extra
    financial difficulties are caused by their liability for
    inheritance tax, which some have to sell their home to pay; married
    couples are exempt from the tax. And if there is no will, a
    same-sex partner has no claim on the deceased’s estate.
  • A recent change in the law lets pension providers pay benefits
    to surviving same-sex partners. Many businesses have incorporated
    this, but most public sector bodies (including education, the NHS
    and local government) have not.
  • As a partner is not legally recognised as next of kin, they can
    be excluded from decisions about their partner’s care or refused
    access to their partner’s bedside outside hospital visiting
  • As well as fears about discrimination, lack of privacy and
    deficient provision for same-sex couples, residential care can
    cause problems if one partner wants or needs to stay at home. While
    married couples are protected by “disregard of property”, which
    negates the value of a shared home in determining care costs, it is
    at the discretion of each local authority as to whether this
    protection is extended to same-sex couples.

It is worth noting that the government is proposing a
partnership registration scheme to give legal recognition to
same-sex couples. This could have a positive impact on the lives of
older lesbians and gay men.

However, older lesbians and gay men can suffer social exclusion in
a range of ways. They may feel excluded from the wider community of
older people and feel they have little in common with the younger
generation of lesbians and gay men, or the gay scene.

Not all older lesbians and gay men will require extra support from
health and social care agencies. In fact, past research1
has shown that many older lesbians and gay men are better equipped
to deal with ageing than their heterosexual counterparts. However,
the lack of legal recognition alone ensures that many will require

Using services presents a series of questions for lesbians and gay
men of any age, such as whether their lifestyle will be respected,
and whether other users and staff will have an understanding of
lesbians and gay men. Will they face homophobic abuse from anyone
if they do come out?

The easiest and safest choice for many, particularly when they are
at their most vulnerable, will be to avoid disclosing their
sexuality, thus eliminating any possibility of discrimination. This
may perpetuate the myth that there are no older lesbians and gay
men and allow service providers to continue to ignore their

If older lesbians and gay men are to be able to minimise the
difficulties these issues bring, professionals must be made aware
of their unique problems and be able to give appropriate advice.
Although there is a general lack of information specifically this
group, Age Concern England’s Opening Doors programme has produced
an information sheet aimed at both professionals and older

At the same time, professional practice could easily be made more
inclusive. The main requirement is to challenge the assumption that
everyone is heterosexual. It is relatively straightforward to avoid
some forms of discrimination – for instance, by ensuring paperwork
is inclusive and asks for “significant other” rather than marital

Professionals also need to recognise that support systems may
extend well beyond the family of origin, and indeed that some
families may not know the whole story. The careful use of
non-stigmatising language by care workers can also help to provide
an open and supportive environment, where clients feel they can
come out without fear of judgement.

Help and Care, a voluntary organisation working with older people
and carers in Dorset, is undertaking a three-year study to explore
some of the experiences, aspirations and concerns of older lesbians
and gay men living in urban and rural communities in Dorset. Two
single-sex reference groups, comprising older lesbians and gay men,
have been recruited for this purpose. This research methodology is
designed to encourage older lesbians and gay men to have a voice in
defining their experiences and gain ownership of the research

The purpose of the research is to contribute to the growing body of
knowledge about the diversity of need within the ageing population,
and help develop a more understanding approach to practice with
lesbians and gay men.

– Written with support from Lee-Ann Fenge, senior lecturer at
Bournemouth University.


The article gives an overview of the potential difficulties
faced by older lesbians and gay men, and highlights a research
project that aims to identify the needs of this group and offer
appropriate provision.


1 R Friend, Older
lesbians and Gay People: A theory of successful ageing
Journal of Homosexuality, 20/3-4, 99-118, 1990  

Planning for Later
Life as a Lesbian, Gay Man, Bisexual or Transgendered Person
Age Concern information sheet, 2003, available from

, ref LC/8

3 J Langley, Developing
Anti-Oppressive Empowering Social Work Practice with Older Lesbian
Women and Gay Men
, British Journal of Social Work, December

Further information

Contact the author

Phone 01202 432288 or 07717 702122, or e-mail nichola.lavin@helpandcare.org.uk

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