Five months after the Dignity House project was proposed — a retirement home for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, two-spirit, queer and intersex (LGBTTQI) adults and their allies in Vancouver — the project has met its initial funding goal of $25 000.
The project has so far raised $36 900, and the $25 000 seed fund will be put towards a feasibility assessment for the project that is a part of Alex Sangha’s Master’s of Social Work at Dalhousie University. Sangha is a registered social worker who hopes to address problems faced by LGBTTQI people as they age and require assisted living that is affordable.
“Loneliness is a very common thing among the elderly,” says Phil DeFreitas, a fourth-year creative writing student who has worked at the Carlton House in Oak Bay as a server for three years. “I think that applies doubly so to people that are of a different sexual orientation.”
“One of the saddest things I remember,” says DeFreitas, “is that I asked one of the residents a couple years ago how his day was going, and he [told me his] partner of 30 years died five years ago [that day]. And I thought, ‘That’s longer than I’ve been alive . . . I can’t even understand.’ ”
The 2006 Canada census found there were 10 325 people in same-sex unions between the ages of 34 and 64 in B.C., and 770 who were 65 years and older.
LGBTTQI seniors experience higher rates of depression and substance abuse and often are faced with discrimination and cultural insensitivity in traditional institutions. As well, many do not have children or family support systems and as a result suffer more frequently from social isolation and uncertain financial support.
Research by Carol McDonald, a UVic associate professor of nursing whose 2008–2010 study looked into the experiences of older lesbians across B.C., found these women faced social issues.
Many of McDonald’s study participants live independently but are acutely aware of upcoming challenges in finding a comfortable place to live, having seen friends and partners struggle in traditional retirement homes and other institutions.
“They talked about challenging experiences throughout their lifetime, really difficult and painful experiences,” says McDonald. “One of the big concerns they talk about is this sort of anticipatory fear about what’s going to happen to them as they get even older and where they will end up.”
McDonald says one of the biggest challenges for LGBTTQI people is likely that society assumes all people to be heterosexual: the idea of heteronormativity. McDonald has noted that retirement homes often host social activities and outings that are tailored to traditional gender roles, scheduling pedicures or trips to the mall for the women, for example.
“Heteronormativity itself is a challenge that people who are not heterosexual live with throughout their life,” says McDonald. “Particularly if you’re looking at a residential setting where you lose your private space, where the space in which you’re able to create an environment that’s not based on heterosexual norms and heteronormativity is a huge challenge, then. In a sense, you lose your identity, and you lose the space in which to live your identity as a non-heterosexual person.”
Issues that are common among seniors, such as social isolation and challenges to psychological health, are often compounded for LGBTTQI seniors. LGBTTQI seniors may not disclose their sexual identities openly once they move into a retirement home in order to avoid discrimination from other residents and healthcare providers.
McDonald notes the importance of addressing the psychological complexities in LGBTTQI seniors who couldn’t be open with their sexual identity for most of their lives.
In three years working at the Carlton House retirement home, DeFreitas says he has known only two or three residents who were openly gay. DeFreitas says the residents always appeared amicable to one another, but that he cannot speak for the experiences of all LGBTTQI seniors.
“They’ve lived almost their entire lives with homosexuality being a terrible thing,” says DeFreitas. “And it’s been, what? Twenty years since it’s become ‘okay’? So I would imagine that they would be very reserved about their sexuality, and if they all lived in a LGBTQ retirement home, there would be that level of implicit understanding already there and they wouldn’t need to hide anything.”
Dignity House Project
The idea for a LGBTTQI retirement home isn’t novel: Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and several other American cities have homes like the Dignity House. As well, Montreal already has two retirement homes for gay men, and McDonald has attended talks about the launch of an LGBTQ home in the city.
The Dignity House research found that housing options for seniors in Vancouver were expensive and limited, and that no affordable housing programs exist for LGBTTQI adults. Sangha says his inspiration for the Dignity House was sparked when he heard about Triangle Square LGBTQ affordable housing project in Los Angeles and then watched a documentary called Gen Silent about the experiences of LGBTQ people in traditional nursing homes.
Sangha says the response has been “very positive,” noting he’s received 17 letters of support, including letters from MP Jinny Sims, MP Hedy Fry and several prominent organizations, including QMUNITY (B.C.’s queer resource centre) and Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) Vancouver. The 22-member Dignity House Advisory Committee currently has a waitlist, and grants from the Vancity Community Foundation and the United Way contributed to the initial funding.
As in Vancouver, there are no LGBTTQI-specific retirement homes in Victoria.
While McDonald is eager to watch the Dignity House project’s progress, she notes that the population base is an important factor when considering specified housing developments — these projects are more viable in Vancouver and Montreal, where there are larger numbers of LGBTTQI residents, than in smaller cities.
However, Victoria is home to a number of social programs and organizations that offer support networks and resources to local LGBTTQI seniors, such as the Victoria Lesbian Seniors Care Society and the Prime Timers for gay and bisexual men over 40.
One of the country’s largest organizations for seniors, CARP New Vision of Aging in Canada, launched its Pink Chapter in 2009 and now offers resources and support for LGBT members.