Christopher Bryant talks to Garry McGregor from the LGBT Age project about the issues that face the ageing LGBT population.
When it comes to the ageing LGBT population, the need for social support is vastly different than it is for the heterosexual population. There is no long-standing tradition of assistance in place, and there is not the same network of family support. The healthcare system is often not structured to meet the needs of LGBT people, whether in terms of bereavement for a same-sex partner, or facing homophobia from care workers. Organisations such as the LGBT Age, which is part of the LGBT Centre for Health and Wellbeing in Edinburgh, address this shortfall. I talked to Garry McGregor, who co-ordinates the LGBT Age project, about the work that the project undertakes and the issues that face the ageing LGBT population.
What are the primary objectives of the LGBT Age project?
The aims of LGBT Age are what would be called “soft” outcomes, such as reducing social isolation, improving self-esteem and confidence. These aren’t novel to anyone who’s had experience of a befriending service, but uniquely for Scotland we offer this to older LGBT people because we recognise that this community is likely to have faced marginalisation throughout their lives and there is a lack of targeted alternatives for them.
What is the age range of the people you work with?
We start at 50 in order to match Age Scotland’s starting point. Some people are surprised at it being this low, but there is research that suggests people from marginalised groups can benefit from support at a younger age than mainstream peers. Certainly there has been a significant demand from people in their 50s, all with very valid reasons for why they could do with befriending. There is no upper age limit and we have supported two 89 year olds to date.
In your experience, what are the main issues that older LGBT people face?
It is important to first acknowledge that there are plenty of able and socially active over 50s in the LGBT population, so we are working like any support organisation with a sub-group of more vulnerable individuals. I would hate any reader to conclude we are saying that LGBT over 50 equals vulnerable.
There is some research, although not much, on the issues that older LGBT people may face. There’s coping with bereavement for a same sex partner and feeling that others don’t understand, or that services may not treat your relationship with the same respect. People caring for a same sex partner can be be reluctant to engage with mainstream services, again over concerns for how you would be treated or viewed. There are people coming to terms with sexual orientation or gender identity later in life, for any number of reasons, and this leaves them feeling uncertain about expressing this aspect of their identity. It’s sometimes difficult for the physically frail, or those who have relocated because of their age, to access LGBT spaces, and this is coupled with feeling less welcome in commercial LGBT spaces, even when they can be accessed. Ageing with HIV is an uncharted journey as we are seeing the first generation to be living with HIV as a chronic illness.
Do you think the LGBT community doesn’t think about the elderly, and so isn’t prepared for growing old when it happens?
If you look at gay media it would be easy to assume that the community doesn’t think about the elderly – unless they are the national treasures of showbusiness! But I think this oversimplifies things, as our commercial media is targeting a narrower audience compared to its mainstream counterparts, so there may not yet be a place for a gay “Saga”. While we rarely grow up in LGBT families, most of us have had grandparents and parents we have seen age, so whether this means we specifically consider how age will impact on our ability to express our identity and maintain our social networks is, perhaps, a different question. I have met gay men who seem to exhibit a “Peter Pan” complex around the notion of ageing as it applies to them personally.
For those of us not in stable long-term relationships, for whatever reason, or who don’t have any desire to raise children, the impact of ageing may take us unawares as the majority of care delivered in the UK is from partners or family. You may feel you have a wonderfully supportive and close-knit set of friends, but how often would you expect to rely on them if you needed help with bathing or toileting?
I saw a BBC report recently that talked about the problems with homophobia from care workers towards the LGBT elderly. What has your experience been with this, and how do you deal with it?
So far we have not come across any homophobia from care workers directly, nor had any reported by our clients. Most of the care staff I have presented to on the project have been interested and supportive – they simply aren’t prepared, which isn’t their fault, as their training seems to skirt this particular equality group. As a project based within a wider LGBT Centre for Health and Wellbeing, we have training resources to draw on for any interested parties. There’s a wonderful group called Highland Rainbow Folk, produced with Age Scotland support, and a fantastic leaflet gently expressing some of the ways language and assumptions have caused offence to our community in their interactions with health and social care staff while also highlighting examples of good practice.
Having said that, there may be indirect homophobia at play, or at least denial, avoidance or ignorance. I invited 65 care home managers in Edinburgh to meet with me to discuss how the service could provide social support to their LGBT residents for free and made a point of emphasising how this would fit with the Care Inspectorate’s personalisation agenda. To date I have received no responses, which seems to suggest the managers don’t believe they have ever had or have LGBT residents. For any care home that has had more than 20 residents through its doors, this would seem statistically very unlikely.
It’s 45 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales, but only 32 years in Scotland. What sort of problems are specific to older Scottish men because of that?
A thankfully small number of men will have faced prosecution in that 13 year gap . Even without being prosecuted, to live for an additional 13 years being outside the law is likely to take its toll on your self-esteem, confidence and mental health. As an English immigrant to Scotland, I am perhaps unqualified to comment, but it may be that the delay in decriminalisation coupled with a smaller population on the ground explains Scotland’s late entry into the era of Pride Marches – the first being 1995 in Edinburgh.
One last thing: the gay lifestyle culture is centred around body image and sex. What happens after that, and how do you think we should better prepare LGBT people with an viable alternative to it?
Oh ask me an easy one, why don’t you? If, by “gay lifestyle culture” you mean the commercial scene, perhaps as a community gay people need to transcend the narrowness they find acceptable in each other. Sex can be great irrespective of your body shape. If the blinkers could be taken off when it comes to what is regarded as an “acceptable” body image then maybe we’d all be having a lot more sex. Don’t look for a partner you’d be proud to show to your friends, look for one who will titillate and amuse you in conversation. Believe me that wit and imagination will prove to have greater longevity than any six-pack.