Caring as if we mean it
My husband (still gloriously trying to get used to that title), says that I behave differently when I’m in gay company. He says that I come alive in a different way than when in mixed company. He says I am more animated, my humour takes on a different edge and I am more relaxed. He could well be right.
It may be difficult for those not gay to understand that, and hopefully my straight friends won’t feel offended by it. The reason may be that its the result of having to be in the closet for so many years and needing to be cautious in straight company, but whatever the reason the feeling remains that when I’m with ‘family’ I rejoice in the fact that these are my people.
Yesterday two things happened which lead me to write this blog. The first arose from having to visit the doctor. I won’t lapse into a ‘sad bastard’ mode and list the things wrong with me but yesterday wasn’t a good experience. I got back home and there he was, rushing down the stairs, greeting me with the usual ‘How did you get on? Hope you’re not pregnant again!’ I smiled and told him all. Nothing special about that, eh? The experience of most couples eh? Sure, but the majority of us older LGBTs live alone. We might be lucky to have a special friend, a significant other, even a relative to relate details about the things that concern us. Even better if they were to get in touch first to enquire about our well being, but it isn’t the same as having someone very close, jointly owning one’s challenging news and then seeing the consequences of it through together.
Secondly, yesterday, a letter arrived in the post, from someone not known to me. It told me the unwelcome news that a friend, of many years standing, and who lived just a mile away, had died; not yesterday, but March last year. So here was a gay man, who I had known for many years, who I had shared lots of social times with, who I had even counselled over a long period of time, and who was known to a lot of other local gay men, had actually passed away and seemingly without anyone else in the local gay community knowing he had gone, and been gone for almost a year.
Now I can imagine the accusations flying with taunts like ‘I thought you people stuck together’, or ‘if you claim to be a community, why don’t you do the basic things that you expect from a community!’. In reply I would say that this man was not easy to deal with and many of us had given up on attempts to create some sort of caring relationship with him. Nevertheless he was gay, he was ‘family’ and sadly there was nothing specifically available which could have served him as a gay man throughout his illness, and was available to him, irrespective of how he related to individuals within the gay community.
Then I began to reflect about many of the other gay men in the area, roughly my age, with some long term or serious medical condition, alone without a partner, and perhaps separated from any surviving blood relatives either geographically or because some issue related to their sexuality had made it so. It is true that none of them, and that included my deceased friend, were totally without support from someone or other, gay or not, but I reflected that this support arose from individual willingness to offer help and not from some organised gay community activity which would have been regular, dependable, focussed and professional; and I am certain that some of them would have welcomed that.
One might argue that if their needs as LGBT people are largely being met then what more do you need? However for me that isn’t enough. These people, like all people, have a history, and for them it is a gay history too, and, like all history, what happened then matters now. They belong and they have no right to be forgotten as LGBT people. As old people they might also have deeper social, psychological, and medical needs, which go way beyond cutting the grass or fetching the groceries, and which a gay friend, however kind, cannot easily meet. So consider the following:-
When I was caring for my terminally ill partner I was fortunate enough to have a lot of people to support us, but there were deeper things to talk about which I didn’t feel were appropriate to burden our friends with. I phoned the Samaritans and told them that I wanted someone to chat with on a weekly basis so that I could unburden my feelings about being a carer and about facing the certainty of my partner’s death. They agreed and the same person phoned me each week. She was very helpful, and I was so grateful, but, even more helpful, would have been a gay person who was, perhaps specifically employed and skilled to meet the needs of older LGBTs in such circumstances.
With the onset of serious long term conditions there are some fairly important issues to be faced and facing them alone only adds to the stress and the feeling of not being able to cope. To have a significant other seeing you through the organisation of end of life issues in an empathic but professional way is so helpful. Friends can, of course, do this, but they are not necessarily unbiased nor sufficiently knowledgeable. Someone who is LGBT and trained would be so helpful.
Old age often brings with it decreasing mobility, and a physical awkwardness which can make even the simplest personal tasks a hassle (try cutting your toe nails when arthritis is severe). Yes I might be happy about friends doing it for me and yes I know there are service providers who can do that but having an LGBT person employed, dedicated, and empathic would be a bonus and not that much of a fantasy. This organisation in the USA has understood such needs
If something can go wrong then it very well might do so and that is true not only for machines but, more significantly, the body too. My cancer might get worse. My dementia might become profound. My falling down may become life threatening. My condition may require different and important solutions, one of which could be residential care. When that happens you might not be able to face the situation as if you are sitting at your desk, composed, fit to talk and make decisions, and unemotionally sort things out. Friends will help but someone who ‘knows the way’, someone who knows how things work and can steer you through to getting the best outcome would be so valuable AND for many of us that person would need to be an LGBT person who will accompany us in the decision making, who can smooth the path by asking the right questions, who can ensure that the answers are in my gay interest and can assure me that I will take that path safely. Someone trained, employed for that and gay would make it so much better.
It is wonderful that there are now some, though not many, organisations specifically for older LGBT people, and reading their newsletters it is encouraging to see a wide scope in their activities. Most of these organisations, however, are in the large conurbations and so perfect if you live in London, Manchester, Brighton, but not so great if you are in Cwmbran, Harpenden etc etc. For those of us isolated, and needing social contact, activities provided by organisations such as AgeUK may be our only social lifeline. But being old, infirm, terminally ill doesn’t have to mean that our ‘gayness’ has to die while our bodies and minds still function. Having an LGBT outreach worker who can liaise with organisations, train them in diversity, and ensure that their activities are inclusive will at least mean that even in extremis we are still treated holistically.
I believe that having dedicated professionals whose remit is to watch out for and serve the needs of older and very old LGBTs is the least we should offer to and expect for the 5% of our adult population. We need outreach workers who, by their dedication, forthrightness and professionalism will ensure that they are respected by service providers and seen as an essential resource for when older LGBTs needs have to be met. Older LGBTs will then also be increasingly assured that they can freely access such workers and know that as LGBT people they will be safely dealt with and their needs seen through to the point where the task is no longer necessary.
This is not a pipe dream, nor is it a luxury for service providers, and it is certainly not so for an LGBT community where, demographically, we oldies will be a sizeable, if not half, of our community.