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a safe home for older lesbians

by Heather Ann Brown | April 23, 2004

Eventually, all lesbian groups get around to talking wistfully about living in an “old dykes’ home” one day – not only as a place where we can live, but where we can receive care from other lesbian or lesbian-positive health care workers. The older the age of those group members, incidentally, the more likely you’ll hear this lament. This longing is something that’s almost innate in many lesbians. We want a place where we're accepted for who we are but, until that day arrives in society generally, we want to be among our own.

That feeling of wanting a supportive environment applies to the health care system as well. To this day, there’s almost a complete lack of knowledge about our specific health care needs and concerns. There’s still a lot of discrimination shown towards lesbians, too, which makes many of us less likely to take full advantage of the health care system. As we age, of course, that knowledge and support are even more critical to lesbians maintaining an active, healthful lifestyle in later years.

So, that was our reason for starting OLIVE – to advocate for these “valued environments” for older lesbians. Certainly aging lesbians share the same concerns as other women in their later years: the lack of financial resources, for example, and the impact of cutbacks on their on their health care, accommodation and ultimate independence. However, there are factors that affect our lives in particular, simply because of who we are and the many varied lives we lead.

— Heather-Ann Brown, former co-ordinator of Older Lesbians in Valued Environments (OLIVE), a grassroots organization started in 2002 to research and advocate for caring, supportive housing and health care for aging lesbians in the Greater Toronto Area

For example, a study by the Mautner Institute in the U.S.,The Heart Truth for Lesbians, stated that, although heart disease is the number one killer of women, lesbians may be at even greater risk. According to their study, many of the factors that increase a woman’s risk for heart disease – such as obesity, smoking, and lack of exercise – are prevalent in the lesbian community. Stress is also a major risk factor for women, and lesbians bear the added stress of anti-gay discrimination. In short, what is the effect of all these factors on aging lesbians and the care they receive? Health care providers and others in decision-making positions need information such as this and much more research is required in future.

OLIVE was only active for two years, but it had a critical impact in three areas affecting aging lesbians:

1. the need for research on aging lesbian issues

Members of OLIVE partnered with the Sherbourne Health Centre to carry out a major research study on the housing and health care needs of aging lesbians in and around Toronto, the first of its kind in Canada – other than, coincidentally, another study taking place in British Columbia at the same time by the Victoria Lesbian Seniors Care Society.

Traditionally, aging lesbian needs had been integrated into research studies of older lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) seniors generally. In other words, no one had ever focused specifically on the needs of aging lesbians, to see how those needs might differ from the other LGBT seniors groups or, in fact, heterosexual seniors.

2. encouraging an awareness of an “older lesbian community” and its needs

A concerted effort was made to include aging lesbians in all facets of the research; not just as participants for the questionnaires, focus groups and one-on-one interviews, but in the actual research work itself, as interviewers, focus group facilitators, etc. As a result, lesbians became more aware of the existence of an aging lesbian community and their shared needs. For example, focus group participants explored and shared many exciting housing and health care concepts and issues; there’s simply no way of knowing what may result from these discussions in future.

It was encouraging to note that aging lesbians felt strongly that responsibility needs to be encouraged in the older lesbian community itself. For example, we need to work together to identify our health and housing issues, better understand lesbian rights and develop more positive images of lesbians. We also need to build connections between the diverse lesbian communities in terms of race, ethnicity, age and income, etc. Finally, we need to advocate for supportive services and accommodation sensitive to our specific needs.

3. creating awareness among decision-makers

Equally important, we spoke with a number of service provider during the research and distributed OLIVE’s research report to service providers, governments departments, politicians, and the wider LGBT community. As a result, there’s now some awareness among those who make seniors’ housing and health care decisions that aging lesbians do have unique needs and not to assume that “one size fits all.”

Unfortunately, most OLIVE members seem to have run out of steam for the time being. On the other hand, there is another non-profit organization – Senior Pride Network – that has emerged in the meantime, comprised of 25 organizations in the Greater Toronto Area providing services to the entire LGBT community.

A couple of OLIVE members are involved in the Senior Pride Network to make sure that the older lesbian voice remains strong in anything that results from their work. Certainly 25 organizations are much stronger than one, so this may be a far more effective route for aging lesbians. We’ll see!

If you would like to receive a copy of OLIVE’s report via e-mail, please write to Heather-Ann Brown at haby@rogers.com.

resources for this story
  • Caring for Lesbian Health: A Resource for Health Care Providers, Policy Makers and Planners, British Columbia Ministry of Health and Ministry Responsible for Seniors, Victoria, B.C. | September 1999
  • Systems Failure in Ontario’s Health-Care and Social-Services Systems, A Report on the Experience of Sexual Minorities, Final Report, Coalition for Lesbian & Gay Rights in Ontario (CLGRO) | 1997
  • Community Care Inclusion Project, Victoria Lesbian Seniors Care Society, by LYN DAVIS, Victoria | 2003
  • Lesbian Health Guidelines, by VICTORIA DAVIS, Journal SOGC: Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada, number 87 | March 2000
  • Gays and Lesbians Aging (GALA), Conference on Aging, Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, Toronto | November 7–8, 1987
  • Older Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Transsexual Persons, Community Services Challenges and Opportunities for the 519 Community Centre and the GLBT Community, by JACK HARMER, a review prepared for the 519 Community Centre, Toronto | June, 2000
  • Lesbian Issues in Canada: A Profile of Victoria, by JUDY LIGHTWATER and JANNIT RABINOVITCH, Women’s Creative Network, Victoria, B.C. | March 2001
  • The Housing Factor Project: Housing Needs of Mid-Life and Older Women – The Findings of Six Ontario Communities, by MARION M. LYNN, Older Women’s Network, Toronto | June 2000
  • Study: Health Care Bias Hurts Gay Elders, by JEAN-PIERRE O’BRIEN, PlanetOut News, 365Gay.com | April 3, 2003
  • Revisioning Aging: Empowerment of Older Women, by JENNY ONYX, ROSEMARY LEONARD and ROSSLYN REED, Peter Lang, New York | 1999
  • Health Promotion for Lesbians: Knowledge Gaps and Research Needs, by HEATHER G. RAMSAY, a research review paper submitted to the faculty of graduate studies in sociology, York University, Toronto | April 1995
  • Environmental Scan on the Health and Housing Needs of Aging Lesbians, by ELEANOR ROSS, MARY SCOTT and ELLEN WEXLER, OLIVE (Older Lesbians in Valued Environment) and Sherbourne Health Centre, Toronto | 2003
  • Access to Care: Exploring the Helath and Well-Being of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Two-Spirit People in Canada, by BILL RYAN, SHARI BROTMAN and BILL ROWE, with the Collaboration of EGALE, Equality for Gays and Lesbians Everywhere, McGill Centre for Applied Family Studies, Montreal | May 2000
  • Structural and Interpersonal Impact of Heterosexual Assumptions on Lesbian Health Care Clients, by PATRICIA E. STEVENS, Nursing Research, volume 44, number 1 | January–February, 1995
  • A Report on the Needs Assessment Survey of Senior Gays and Lesbians, Sum Quod Sum Foundation, Inc., unpublished, Winnipeg | 1997
  • An Exploration into the Experiences of Aging Lesbians in Toronto, by JUDE TATE, a thesis proposal submitted in conformity with the requirements for the degree of maser social work, faculty of social work, University of Toronto | 1999
  • Health Services for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered People, Why Do We Need a Primary Health Care Program for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered People? by ANNA TRAVERS, unpublished draft, Toronto | July 2001
  • Gays Forced Back into the Closet at Retirement Homes, by SHERYL UBELACKER, The Toronto Star | February 26, 2000

This feature was first published on section15.ca's predecessor site CoolWomen.

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