PARIS — As he started walking down the hallway of a nursing home in France, Victor Castanet, a journalist for Le Monde, came across the haunting image of an elderly man calling out for a loved one: "Eléonore! Eléonore! Eléonore!" It was a forlorn and, unfortunately, stereotypical snapshot of care homes in many countries. But at the end of the hallway, Castanet discovered a different microcosm of the geriatric world, just as universal yet not quite as visible.
"It was the portrait of a passion that defied the laws of aging, bodily decline and ‘social norms': two women, aged 89 and 100, curled up together in a tiny nursing bed," recounts Castanet in an article on LGBT+ individuals in nursing homes.
The two women met and fell in love in their care home; today they spend their time knitting, practicing laughter yoga and singing karaoke hand in hand. Yet the life they created together is in spite of a system that is not particularly LGBT+ friendly. "You should have seen the staff's reaction [when I announced they were a couple]," recounted their former caretaker to Castanet. "Classic love stories are already unthinkable in nursing homes. Because we're old and ugly, apparently we don't have the right to fall in love. But two women! You can't imagine it."
I've been fabulous throughout my life and I want to be fabulous till the very end.
While "gay friendly" retirement homes exist in the United States, Canada, Germany, Denmark and Sweden, the widespread isolation of LGBT+ seniors remains problematic. In 2016 a lesbian couple were turned away from a retirement community in the U.S. due to their sexual orientation, and Castanet cites multiple examples of queer French seniors encountering mockery and scathing remarks from both their nurses and peers. Isolation is already a problem in the aging population, and multiple studies have found that the risk is higher for those who identify as LGBT+.
Today's LGBT+ seniors are one of the first generations to have lived openly queer lives — Photo: Alex Boyd
Being a queer senior is not exactly news. What is new is that in some countries, the now-aging population are the first to have lived openly queer lives and they are unwilling to accept compromises. "I've been fabulous throughout my life and I want to be fabulous till the very end of my life," an Irish-American man named David told the LGBT+ media PinkNews. He relocated to Spain in anticipation of the new queer-focused retirement home that is planned to open later this year in Madrid. In a country where homosexuality was cause for imprisonment until 1979, the government-funded care home is an enormous step forward for LGBT+ rights.
In New York City, a metropolis with a rife history of LGBT+ activism, a public housing project for LGBT+ elders is scheduled to open at the same time of the 50th anniversary of the homophobic, New York-based Stonewall Riots, illustrating the leaps in queer rights that have unfolded during the lifetime of these New York seniors.
What is being hailed as the first "shelter for the elderly" service in Latin America opened last year in Mexico City with the name "Laetus Vitae" or "Happy Life" in Latin, reports El Universal daily. "Since (our) community has been discriminated against, here the doors are open to everyone," says Samantha Flores, an 87-year-old transgender woman and founder of the shelter. Like so many elderly "these are people who are alone, and need company and someone to talk with."
Even in cities like Manchester — which holds the second-highest LGBT+ population in Britain — local reports have indicated that queer seniors suffer higher levels of loneliness and isolation. Their city council is in the process of creating residences for queer seniors in a diverse, bustling part of the city to help residents maintain their independence. Scotland is also weighting the importance of creating an LGBT+-friendly care home in a downtown location; In this case, it's an Anglican church in Dumfries. The new center would fund the church, help an at-risk group and bring more citizens to the town.
"There is not much of a social life which is why LGBT+ people have always gravitated to cities because there is a kind of 'critical mass' almost," Dr. Belle Doyle, who is leading the project in Dumfries, explained to the BBC. "If there is a large enough group you become the majority, you are taken seriously at that point. It is not just one or two people and they are isolated and you can bully or intimidate them." Dyfrig Hywel, a member of the project board, added: "We have got other people who come out of the closet in their 60s when their parents die. Despite the huge progress in society they are still really, really vulnerable people."
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