Gay, lesbian seniors face obstacles

Gays and lesbians who grew up in the days when homosexuality was considered a mental illness are now seniors who face continued discrimination and self-imposed silence when it comes to accessing the health-care services they need, says a study released Tuesday.

“People were once forced into psychiatric institutions,” said Bill Ryan, one of the lead researchers in the study by the McGill University School of Social Work. “Going to a doctor was a very fearful experience for many people.”

Homosexual seniors are still afraid to reveal their sexual orientation to their doctor or other health care providers, said the study, which was done over four years.

Shari Brotman, co-author of the study, said many recalled medical treatment to “cure” their homosexuality.

“Their relationship throughout their early lives with the health-care system was one of extreme discrimination and hostility,” Brotman said.

“So they come to their older selves, requiring care, losing some autonomy . . . and they really are afraid to access the same system that treated them so badly when they were younger.”

Researchers spoke to seniors, their caregivers and health-care providers in Montreal, Vancouver and Halifax.

Their sample group was small - 38 seniors, 31 health-care providers and 21 caregivers - but the stories were similar, researchers said.

Lobotomies, shock therapy and jail were once common reactions to same-sex attraction.

“You didn’t want anybody to know,” said Wilfrid Dube, a 71-year-old who spent much of his life in the closet.

“You were called sissy, teased. What I had to do was adapt myself, adopt the behaviours of people who were more masculine.”

And while much has changed, there are still a surprising number of stories of discrimination, Brotman said.

One woman told researchers that her home-care provider arrived with a Bible to “save her.” Another was told she didn’t need an annual pap smear because she was a lesbian.

Older men said they were assumed to have AIDS.

Some gay couples said they signed into care homes as brothers so they could share a room, where they hugged and shared affection only behind closed doors.

“I find that pretty sad,” Ryan said.

Diane Heffernan, 64, recalled one recent incident during an appointment with a specialist.

“I told him I was a lesbian and right away. He said, ‘you need an AIDS test,’ as if I was contaminated,” said Heffernan, a co-ordinator for the Quebec Lesbian Network.

Partners, children and friends who take care of homosexual seniors are also marginalized, the study found.

Homosexual partners aren’t granted the same rights as heterosexual spouses, and in a community where family relations are often strained, non-family caregivers are rarely included in medical decision-making the same way as family members would be, said researchers.

There are many seniors who have good relationships with their health-care providers, Brotman said.

But “we have to pay attention to those who don’t.”

The study calls for increased training within the health-care sector and greater effort to reach out to gay and lesbian seniors.

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Source: Reuters

Provided by ArmMed Media
Revision date: June 22, 2011
Last revised: by Amalia K. Gagarina, M.S., R.D.