Older LGBT+ people face significant obstacles in Irish society
Healthcare and identity rights must not be compromised on basis of sexuality as we age
Although the Government identifies older LGBT+ people as a group at risk of social exclusion, it has yet to monitor their experiences or develop bespoke policy solutions which support their inclusion. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
Imagine you are 75 years old. Aged 25, you were considered a part of a crime, sick, and an abomination by society, medicine and your church. When you were 30, psychiatry stopped defining homosexuality as a medical disorder and the first public gay rights demonstration was held in Dublin. When you were 49, Ireland decriminalised sexual acts between men. Aged 71, you finally had the right to same-sex marriage. All your life you’ve been defined by your sexuality. Initially perhaps, it was something you hid, then something you fought for, becoming something you were proud of. Now, you are simply “old”.
Ageism is rare among the “isms” in that it reaches across divisions. Gay/straight, female/male, cis/trans, Muslim/Christian, Catholic/Protestant, urban/rural, black/white, immigrant/local/refugee, we all grow older. However, as we age, society can strip us of our identity. It’s not uncommon for people who were once defined by their skill with a hurley or a surgical knife to suddenly be rendered uninteresting, unsexual and unseen.
For those in the LGBT + community, the challenges are compounded. Doctors give an older transwoman a single room in hospital as they don’t “fit” into the “male” or “female” wards. A widowed lesbian woman who never got to marry her partner is not “widowed” but “single” in the eyes of the State, in the blink of an eye her social history is rewritten.
Even, when LGBT+ people need help to remain living at home, there are issues. In Ireland, homecare is married to the nuclear family, particularly the role of women who make up the majority of our informal or family carers. The State’s role in homecare is defined by the principle of subsidiarity in care and social matters – family first and State second – a legacy of our socially conservative history. Consequently, State-provided homecare often only supplements informal care, offering enough hours to support an older adult only if informal care can cover the remainder hours. All this means those with non-traditional family arrangements, typical within the LGBT+ community, are less likely to receive homecare and the only option becomes costly residential care.
Those with non-traditional family arrangements, typical within the LGBT+ community, are less likely to receive homecare
Although the Government identifies older LGBT+ people as a group at risk of social exclusion, it has yet to monitor their experiences or develop bespoke policy solutions which support their inclusion. Activities designed for geographically based communities fail to address the needs of dispersed communities without spatial boundaries.
For example, geographically based initiatives such as men’s sheds have been enormously successful to support healthy ageing among men. However, older lesbians across the country who historically met up to support each other are now at risk of isolation and loneliness in old age as they cannot secure physical spaces in urban areas because of the competition for those resources.
Changes in cognition
At a recent workshop at Trinity College Dublin, members of the LGBT+ community were invited by Atlantic Fellows at the Global Brain Health Institute to share their experiences of ageing and healthcare and their thoughts on how to better support LGBT+ people as they grow older.
Some people remembered the horror of being labelled as a crime. Some remembered with pride their part in the fight for change. For some, the fear and shame they felt still haunts their mental health. Some embraced new identities in later life but lost relationships with adult children, their spouse and siblings. For some, their first grandchild meant choosing between being a grandmother and their LGBT+ identity. For some, changes in cognition associated with dementia (affecting an estimated 55,000 older Irish adults), meant disclosing their true gender or sexuality for the first time, to considerable discomfort of family.
Some embraced new identities in later life but lost relationships with adult children, their spouse and siblings
During this year’s Pride Festival, we honour the activists who changed the shape of Irish society, making both themselves and the structural forms of oppression visible. However, it should also be time for all of society to embrace the diversity within our older population, and recognise it as a strength and a resource for healthy ageing.
The goal is simple: to realise the human right to age as we are, to be ourselves in the world, and to leave it as who we are.
Dana Walrath and Lorna Roe are Atlantic Fellows for Equity in Brain Health at the Global Brain Health Institute in Trinity College Dublin