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
    Connexions.

    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
      hours.
    • 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
    support.

    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
    needs.

    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
    people.2

    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
    status.3

    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
    process.

    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.

    Abstract

    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.

    References 

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

    2
    Planning for Later
    Life as a Lesbian, Gay Man, Bisexual or Transgendered Person
    ,
    Age Concern information sheet, 2003, available from

    www.ageconcern.org.uk
    , 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
    2001

    Further information

    Contact the author

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

    More from Community Care

    Comments are closed.