In a bright room at the Birmingham LGBT centre, a group of over 60s are tucking into quiche and cake at the Rainbow Bridge coffee morning, discussing their worries about getting older.
Some of them have felt they have had to hide their sexuality when receiving care, while others are sharing their concerns they will have to go back in the closet if they have to move into a care home.
Helen Rickedds, 60, has Parkinsons, and lives in West Bromwich. Originally from Greece, she moved to the UK in 1979. “Sometimes I have felt scared. You don’t know if people are going to have a problem with you. They might not but that’s how I feel and there often isn’t anyone to talk to,” she explains.
“Getting older and also being ill makes it worse. You feel different and even more isolated. I have been in hospital recently and didn’t feel I could be open about it.”
The LGBT campaign group Stonewall has carried out research on the challenges facing elderly gay people nationally. It found that significant numbers of LGBT people are concerned about the prospect either of living alone without support or having to enter care homes which will not meet their needs.
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Many have told the charity they would not feel comfortable about their sexuality being known by care home staff, while others said they felt the same about a housing provider, hospital staff or a paid carer.
The issue has also been picked up by Age UK, the leading charity for older people, who released a guide on ageing for LGBT people earlier this year. Its research found that the existence of older non-heterosexuals is rarely acknowledged within society, which can lead to stigma.
In Birmingham, the LGBT centre is launching a year long campaign, Ageing with Pride, to attempt to raise awareness of the stigma older people face.
Rickedds worries about the future if she were to go into a care home. “I feel like I would have to be careful about who I told,” she said. “I’m still affected by the past. I hope things are different now but I think there needs to be more awareness and greater support.”
Another member of the group, Richard Green, 66, says he has seen mixed reactions when friends have gone into hospital or care homes.
“There is a fear about going into care homes because who knows what the future holds for us. I knew someone who got cancer and went into hospital where they discovered it was terminal. The care was there but there was no recognition of his sexuality and who he was.
“He tried to have a conversation with one of the nurses about it and she responded saying it was a private matter and she wouldn’t be talking about it. He found that quite alienating.”
His friend then went to a hospice and finally into a care home before he died. “We visited him quite regularly to keep him up to date with the LGBT community. In the care home, the staff were excellent but the link to the community was really important to him. Without that I think it would have been really isolating.”
Mick Harper, 73, said not being open has impacted his mental health. He says it is important to be clear and open about his sexuality if he ever did go into a care home.
He said: “I recently went to some sheltered accommodation where a friend lives. Introducing the subject can be difficult in those places. I was asking the people who run it how comfortable a gay person would feel. It’s not easy.
“I think if I moved into a care home, I would now try and let people know about my sexuality to get it out the way but I know people who would do the opposite.
“I would have done the same before and I used to spend a lot of time in the pub, but I was just suppressing stuff.”
Research by Stonewall also highlighted that social isolation is a serious issue for older LGBT people, with them significantly more likely to be living alone, 41% compared to 28% of heterosexuals.
Kelvin Watson, 79, moved to Birmingham in the 1980s after separating from his wife and coming out. He lives alone and says isolation can be an issue.
“My daughters come and see me sometimes but I write poetry and read a lot of books. Doing that means I don’t mind so much that nobody is banging on the door but I do try and come to this group when I can to spend time with people.”
Richard Green also lives alone. His partner died suddenly last year shortly after they had split up. “
The main challenge was: do I sit at home twiddling my thumbs or do I get out there and meet people? Richard Green
The main challenge was: do I sit at home twiddling my thumbs or do I get out there and meet people?
“The second challenge was retiring because work is a big part of our lives and that suddenly stopped and I had a lot of time during the day and I needed reasons to get up in the morning. Living on my own, that’s quite important.”
The Birmingham LGBT centre’s campaign, which has been funded by the Big Lottery, will also highlight the positive contribution older people have made to LGBT rights and will signpost them to services and social groups they could benefit from.
Steph Keeble, chief executive of the charity, said it was important to address the issues that older LGBT people face, but also to celebrate “the lives and achievements of our LGBT elders many of whom fought discrimination and campaigned for the achievements in human rights we all now share”.
Maria Hughes, who is the coordinator for Ageing Better, said the gay community itself can be ageist and that plays a big part in the loneliness and isolation that many over 50s feel.
She said: “LGBT people who fought for their rights in the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s can now perceive themselves to be too old for the ‘gay scene’; wondering what opportunities there are for them to meet, socialise, enjoy activities and celebrate their histories, especially if their partners and friends have passed on.”