When Geoffrey Ostling first considered going into aged care, Australians were voting on marriage equality.
- The Royal Commission into Aged Care did not make any specific recommendations for the LGBTQIA+ community
- Advocates say residential care can be particularly frightening for the community, who have grown up with discrimination
- Volunteer visitor programs are trying to combat social isolation experienced by elderly members of the community
Living in his own home — with multiple staircases — had become too hard for the 73-year-old gay man and so he began looking for an alternative.
He said he visited at least 10 homes, but none was right for him.
“They were all pretty horrible, and it was sad to see because when you went inside, you’d see all these quite nice period furniture and pictures on the walls and so on, and all these people sitting around staring at the television set from the far corner of the room,” he said.
Then he took a tour of Elizabeth Lodge, which was “brimming with activity and people doing art classes and all sorts of things”.
But the home was run by the Anglican Church, which had just donated $1 million to the vote no to same-sex marriage campaign.
“It was a great concern at the very beginning,” he said.
“I wondered what it could possibly be like, and it was suggested that I come here for two weeks just to try it out and see.”
Mr Ostling is one of more than 236,000 Australians permanently living in aged care.
It’s not known how many of them identify as LGBTQ or how they’re faring in the beleaguered system.
“The problem is we don’t really know. There is no data and we don’t collect data about abuses for the LGBTQ community,” said Claire Allen, national program manager with LGBTQ+ health organisation ACON.
“We do know that roughly 40 per cent of the broader community experience abuse — elder abuse.
“On top of that sits LGBTQ-specific abuses … not respecting affirmed gender names and pronouns, not taking the loved one of the LGBTQ persons perspective or including them in decision making and rather deferring to the biological family rather than family of choice are all forms of LGBTQ abuse.”
The Royal Commission into Aged Care heard evidence from members of the community and providers specialising in their care during its hearings, but the community did not feature in any of the final recommendations.
“While the recommendations in the final report for the royal commission are definitely a step forward and we need additional training and data collection and improvement of the system across the board, there’s no specific reference in the 148 recommendations to LGBTQ people, and that’s really a lost opportunity,” Ms Allen said.
Ms Allen said many LGBTQ people who have lived independent queer lives, face the prospect of going back into the closet as they get older.
“There’s always a risk that when you disclose that you’ll be treated with disrespect or outright abuse,” she said.
“This is especially true for our older LGBTQ members because they’ve often experienced years of discrimination that was legal, in fact, sanctioned by the law.
“When you’re seeking care, you’re ultimately vulnerable, and that is a time when you don’t want to be necessarily putting yourself at a more vulnerable situation by disclosing.”
She said many people like Geoffrey are wary of entering aged care homes run by religious groups — who make up almost a quarter of residential care places in Australia.
“When a lot of the aged care providers are faith based, that adds an extra layer of fear, irrespective of how inclusive they are currently, because historically, faiths and religious bodies have been part of the problem.”
For Geoffrey, his two-week trial at Elizabeth Lodge has happily turned into years of residency.
“I needn’t have worried at all because they were nice, they were kind. They were generous and they were they were just ordinary people,” he said.
But he believes there are other gay men who remain in the closet in aged care.
“There are some that are terrified … they don’t want to talk to me in public because I might out them and I can think of several people who fit that category,” he said.
‘Constantly having to come out to people’
In Melbourne’s inner-west, 78-year-old Toni Paynter lives in her home, with the support of a home care package.
She said she’s never felt more in control of her life, living with financial independence and able to be herself after she stopped living as a man 15 years ago.
“It was exhilarating, I could do what I wanted to do and I went ahead and did it.
“I went virtually overnight from being a very quiet, introverted personality that was completely focussed on work to grabbing the LGBTI community with open arms.”
But as she gets older, the thought of those connections dropping off and going into aged care horrifies her.
“I don’t believe I would feel comfortable there, I don’t think the community as a whole is really accepting of transgender as a reality,” she said.
“I haven’t had my body modified to the extent that it would take a surgeon to realise I wasn’t a female, I don’t have that privilege, so every time, a care worker had to deal with me and my body was exposed, it would be obvious that I was trans and I would be constantly having to come out to people.”
Isolation exacerbated by COVID-19
Ms Paynter is regularly visited by a volunteer from the LGBTQIA+ support group Switchboard, which runs a visitor program for aging members of the community.
Switchboard CEO Joe Ball said the program was about combatting social isolation — a problem experienced particularly acutely by members of the community.
“If you’re LGBT and you live in aged care, you’re far more likely to be socially isolated … if you’re 65 and plus, you’re far, far less likely to have children than generations that follow.”
In Melbourne, the issue was exacerbated by COVID-19, with visitors unable to go inside aged care facilities for months, leaving Switchboard scrambling for iPads so they could stay in touch with those they were supporting.
“What we saw during COVID from our perspective was what that social isolation looks like and what it means — people were extremely terrified,” they said.
“We supported people who were locked in their bedrooms.
“For people with dementia, that was a particularly stressful time because they might be told one day or one part of the day what’s going on and then they forget due to dementia what is actually going on.
Joe Ball said that with visitors came “eyes on” a resident — someone to observe that nothing was being missed by stretched carers.
“Aged care should not be something that we are terrified of, and most of us are,” they said.
“You want to be your true self in an aged care facility. Isn’t that something we all want, regardless of our sexuality and gender?”