Unlocking the closet doors in our care homes

When older LGBTQ+ people leave their own flats or houses and move into sheltered housing or care homes, many of them have to ask themselves if they want to come out to everyone in the collective living community they are joining.

There are all sorts of reasons that might give them pause. The marketing leaflet may not have included any photographs of same-sex couples. The onsite staff may have assumed they were heterosexual or cis-gendered without asking them. Their new neighbours may have been overheard making prejudiced remarks – about other residents, staff members or people on TV. And all the discrimination and homophobia they have already experienced may make them wary about disclosure, at the very least.
The dilemmas that face LGBTQ+ elders who move into collective living settings have been highlighted in research since the early 1990s. On the one hand, like LGBTQ+ people of all ages, they crave the company of their own tribe, and the lack of groups they would like to join outside major metropolitan areas can hugely increase social isolation. “The loneliness of just not being able to have a laugh about things that gays find humour in – and which ‘society’ thinks is wrong – slowly eats away at you: just to be with one’s own people without the overt or obvious display of ‘being gay’ for its own sake,” older gay man David told researchers Ruth Hubbard and John Rossington, who wrote the report As We Grow Older for Polari Housing in 1993. On the other hand, the need for community cannot necessarily be straightforwardly met when LGBTQ+ elders risk hostility when they are open about who they are, as older lesbian Jean related in the same report: “I am a member of the local golf club (very male oriented) and a spiteful letter was sent to the secretary informing the club that I was the president of the lesbian club in xxx (I am not the president, nor is there any such club). I was not challenged but an atmosphere has been created: I no longer feel welcome.”
And the need for community can be enormously significant when many older LGBTQ+ people do not have the kinds of extended families that many (although not all) of their heterosexual counterparts enjoy (for the most part). That means non-inclusive collective living arrangements can be especially painful not only for LGBTQ+ residents but for their friends from the community. “Though of a comparatively high standard of accommodation, I don’t think my care home is a particularly easy place for a gay man to live – they know about me but I have to be discreet, which I never used to be,” older gay man Paul told the Polari report. “Also, my gay friends tend not to visit me any more, not being made to feel welcome and also feeling it could make life difficult for me.”
While social attitudes and equality legislation have advanced enormously since the early 1990s, many of the issues identified in the Polari report remain in play. For example, only 49 per cent of LGB people aged 60 and over feel they can be open about their sexual orientation without fear of prejudice in their local health practice or hospital, according to 2009 research for the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). Invisibility and assumed heterosexuality remain commonplace in service delivery, and there is a very uneven development in training for home care staff, according to a 2010 study for the EHRC. This creates situations where LGBTQ+ people who came out in the era long before the partial decriminalisation of homosexual relationships began 50 years ago are unable to enjoy the advances that have been made towards equality. ‘I came out in the ’50s – and that was shit – now I am dependent on carers and I am frightened … I am very frightened of them … what if they find out that I am a lesbian … what are they going to do to me,” one older lesbian told researcher Stephen Pugh in 2010 (unpublished thesis quoted here). “I have de-gayed my house … this is much worse than the ’50s. I want to be able to be gay in my last days – I don’t want to have to hide again and I particularly don’t want to have to hide because the home help is coming round.”
But there are housing providers for elders that are trying to create genuinely inclusive environments for their LGBTQ+ residents and tenants, the foremost of them being England’s largest provider of housing and care for older people, Anchor Homes, which has also facilitated a support group for its LGBTQ+ tenants, residents and leaseholders for the past decade, and is helping Inky Cloak with the research for this project.
Anchor Homes Customer Engagement Manager Brenda Metcalfe set up the LGBT group after talking to London tenant Cecilia, a lifetime community activist who had recently moved into an Anchor location in the East End. “Cecilia suggested we set up a support group because it can be very isolating and scary moving into a big closed community of sheltered housing and not knowing what kind of reception you’d receive,” she recalls.
Brenda advertised the new group in the magazine Anchor sends to all its tenants, residents and leaseholders twice a year, which generated a lot of interest. But come the first meeting, only three people (including Cecilia) actually showed up – confirmation of everything Cecilia had been saying. “It took a long time to build up trust and a long time to build up membership,” Brenda says. They promoted the group using the contact details for two of the members (including Cecilia), so that anybody could join without having to out themselves to a member of staff, and they organised group meetings at non-Anchor sites such as hotels, so that people could attend without outing themselves to their fellow-residents if they didn’t want to.
The group’s programme of work is now very much up to the members themselves, Brenda says. “We altered the way we structure our customer engagement last year so now we’ve made it a peer support group: we’ve given them a budget and we help support the meetings but the group is very much run by them – they decide on their own agenda. We go along to meetings and support them but it’s very much a tenant-led group,” she explains.
Between 12 and 20 of the 50-strong membership tend to take part in the group meetings, which are rotated around different parts of England to facilitate participation. “We have a lot of older people who physically can’t travel a long way so there may be members who never come to a meeting or may only come when it’s regionally held near them,” Brenda says.
While the main function of the group is to support LGBTQ+ people living in Anchor locations, members have also helped Anchor tenants, residents or leaseholders who have been looking for support after finding out their children or grand-children are LGBTQ+. “That was quite an unexpected thing that happened with the group but really pleasing to see that we can help support that as well,” Brenda says.
The group also helps develop Anchor policies and good practice. “They’ve been very influential in helping our equality and diversity policy, they’ve been very influential in helping shape our training and they advise on issues like the way we draw up our support plans,” Brenda says.
The group has also played a key role in a recently completed project by Middlesex University in six of Anchor’s London care homes to look at improving support for older LGBTQ+ people moving into care homes. With financing from Comic Relief, the project involved teams of volunteers visiting the homes to ask staff questions about their views on providing care to members of the LGBTQ+ community, and looked at how each home operated. “A couple of members of the group were community advisers working on the project and have been involved in giving an overview right from the start,” Brenda says. “When we were drawing up the project plan, they advised on what it might look like, what we should be asking, how we should be working, how we should be feeding back and how we should be monitoring the action plan to make sure we’re taking it forward.”
Dr Trish Hafford-Letchfield, Professor of Social Care at Middlesex University, then worked with Anchor on an action plan to improve services at their 121 care homes across the country. “We looked at things like how we market our homes, what kind of literature we put out there, how we link in with the local community, what care plans look like, how we support LGBT people through care plans and whether we include activities that would be of interest to people who are L, G, B or T,” Brenda says. In addition, the project has also made an audit tool available to all care providers to enable them to assess the level of inclusivity of older LGBTQ+ people living in their care homes.
Because of its track record on LGBTQ+ inclusivity, Anchor is often approached by other social care providers and other organisations keen to learn the lessons so that LGBTQ+ service users no longer feel they have no alternative but to re-closet themselves in order to escape from discrimination. “We are continually asked to share our views on how our group works because – we’re happy to do that because we’ve learned a lot along the way and its great to share that with people,” Brenda says.

© Daniel Fulvio & Martin Moriarty