Older lesbians in residential and nursing care

A central feature of care in the fourth age is the medicalisation of ageing bodies, the emphasis on collective bodily care and the power dynamics involved in that care1. An aspect of these dynamics that has not yet been explored is the intersection of age, gender and sexuality in the provision of personal care in residential settings for older people. Single, childless, older women are most likely to populate these settings2. These women are also more likely to be lesbians, both because older lesbians and gay men are earlier and disproportionate users of formal social care, and because older lesbians are more likely than older heterosexual women to be single and childless3. Lesbians have often found the processes of self-disclosure in health contexts a treacherous terrain to navigate in earlier life, many avoiding screening/treatment and/or choosing not to disclose their sexual identities to medical professionals, particularly during intimate physical examinations4. Some younger(er) lesbians also report feeling vulnerable to the heteronormative gaze in those gay commercial contexts frequented by heterosexual women5.

Residential care for older people – heteronormative at best, homophobic at worst6, is situated at the intersection between these two sites of vulnerability. It is also a site of social exclusion where ageing bodies are hidden away and where dependency can mean it is less likely someone will complain about their care or otherwise assert their rights, especially people from minority communities7.

Care spaces in the home or in sheltered accommodation or residential care have long been recognised as complicating the notion of the public-private divide, being both public work spaces and private home spaces. For an older lesbian this becomes even more complicated. Home care which goes public no longer affords the sanctuary of private identity performance and management. Yet at the same time, because it is home care, often in care spaces where the very old older person is hidden away from the public eye, some of the legal protections which she might have been able to mobilise for herself also do not apply, when the disciplinary norms of social relationships dominate. In this way an older lesbian can be disadvantaged in multiple ways by a home that has gone public and a public space that operates on private, heteronormative, lines.

(1)  Twigg, Julia. (2004) ‘The body, gender, and age: Feminist insights in social gerontology.’ Journal of Aging Studies 1891): 59-73.

(2)  Arber, Sara (2006) ‘Gender and Later Life: Change, Choice and Constraints’. In J. Vincent, C. Phillipson and M. Downs (eds) The Futures of Old Age, pp. 54-61, London: Sage.

(3)  Heaphy, Brian Yip, Andrew and Thompson, Debbie (2004) ‘Ageing In A Non-Heterosexual Context’, Ageing & Society, 24(6): 881-902; Stonewall (2011) Lesbian, Gay Bisexual People in Later Life, London: Stonewall.

(4)  Hunt, Ruth, and Julie Fish. “Prescription for Change: Lesbian and bisexual women’s health check 2008.” Stonewall and De Montford University (2008).

(5)  Casey, Mark (2004) ‘ De-dyking Queer Space(s): Heterosexual Female Visibility in Gay and Lesbian Spaces’, Sexualities, 7(4): 446-461

(6)  Ward, Richard, Pugh, Stephen and Price, Elizabeth (2011) Don’t look back? Improving health and social care service delivery for older LGB users, London: Equality and Human Rights Commission.

(7)  Aronson, Jane and Neysmith, Sheila M. (2001) ‘Manufacturing Social Exclusion in the Home Care Market’, Canadian Public Policy – Analyse De Politiques, 27(2): 154-165

Recent publications on researching older lesbians

Two new articles by Sue Westwood have recently been published on researching older lesbians. The first was a very brief essay in a compilation a compendium edited by Sally-Marie Bamford and Jessica Watson, entitled ‘Has the sisterhood forgotten older women?’ Sue’s piece, ‘We are Older Women Too’ highlighted the marginalision of older lesbians from discourse about older women and ‘LGBT’ ageing research. Sue has also just had a paper published in the Journal of Lesbian Studies‘Researching Older Lesbians: Problems and Partial Solutions’ explores practical and ethical issues arising from Sue’s empirical research with older lesbians as part of wider PhD research project on LGB ageing and equality. The article highlights the difficulties and power dynamics involved in researching older lesbians, and suggests a more collaborative way of working:

Abstract: There is a lack of research about older lesbians, who can be considered not only a “hidden population” but also a population in hiding. Yet older lesbians hold vital historical and cultural narratives which are, in turn, the heritage of younger lesbians. They also have much to contribute to understandings about gender, sexuality and ageing, and to their currently unmet needs in terms of age-related housing, health and social care provision. This article reflects on some of the issues that make it difficult to access older lesbians for research purposes. It identifies four problematic areas in researching older lesbians: definitions, access, representative sampling, and ethical issues.  It suggests that participative action research  might offer a means of widening access and engaging with older lesbians in a more collaborative way.

For more information, please contact Sue Westwood (s.westwood@keele.ac.uk).  The article can be accessed on the Journal of Lesbian Studies or by contacting Sue.

Jane Traies is another researcher also publishing about older lesbians. Jane is working on a research project about older lesbians, based at the University of Sussex,  building the first-ever comprehensive picture of older lesbian life in the UK. Jane has also recently had a chapter published,  ‘Women Like That: Older Lesbians in the UK’ in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Ageing : Biographical Approaches for Inclusive Care and Support, edited by Richard Ward et al. For more information about Jane’s project, see her website:  ‘Women Like That.’

‘Who cares?’ By Dr Andrew King

It’s been National Carers Week in the UK recently. It’s been well publicised in mainstream and social media, even receiving its own twitter hashtag #carersweek. I’ve read some heart-wrenching and indeed heart-warming stories and learned some useful facts, such as those provided by ONS from Census data. There has rightly been a discussion of hidden carers.  Yet despite this, I have seen very little, indeed next to nothing, about informal caring relationships that take place between lesbian, gay and/or bisexual people (LGB). Unfortunately, this sort of invisibility and implicit heterosexism is nothing new. There is a growing body of literature, including academic, third sector and activist generated studies that points to the invisibility of older LGB people in general and older LGB carers in particular. There are some on-going and important projects which have tried to increase the visibility of older LGB people and their needs, such as Age UKs excellent ‘Opening Doors’ and work in public sector organisations, and projects about specific issues like end-of-life care.

Yet research, including my own, demonstrates that caring relationships amongst older LGB people, what we might refer to as informal care relationships within chosen networks, or ‘families of choice’ (Weeks et al., 2001; Weston, 1991) are both very important and diverse, more so than heterosexual people’s. Research shows that older LGB people rely more on friends and partners for support in later life. But it’s important not to simplify and to capture the levels of complexity that are apparent in older LGB people’s lived experiences of informal care. It’s why I think a relational approach is needed because it shows that roles and identities such as carer and care recipient are rather too simplistic. I discuss this approach further in a chapter I’ve written in a forthcoming book ‘Mapping Intimacies’. To give you an idea of what I mean, here is the story of two older gay men, Alec and Peter.

Alec and Peter first met in the late 1970s. Peter supported Alec physically, emotionally and financially. For instance Peter helped Alec visit various private doctors and specialists, obtaining better care for him, until his underlying medical condition was stabilised; he nursed him when he was particularly ill; he helped him cope with the psychological stress of his chronic illness; and when Alec had to retire early on health grounds, Peter continued to support him financially. Hence, it would appear that Peter has for many years taken the role and identity of being Alec’s carer. However, when they first met Peter was struggling to come to terms with his sexuality. He felt that his family, particularly his father, did not understand his sexuality and would not accept it. Dealing with this led him to a local lesbian and gay support network where he met Alec. He helped Peter to accept his sexuality and viewed in this way, he can be seen as caring for Peter psychologically, whilst Peter tried to support Alec with his chronic illness. Recently, Alec has suffered from further ill health and Peter, although continuing to work, has also suffered periods of illness. Peter is learning to cope with Alec’s increasing infirmity, whilst Alec faces coping with Peter’s growing depressions and frustrations.

So, let’s see much more of presence of carers who are not heterosexual in the next Carers Week, but let’s not forget that the distinction between carer and cared for is also complex, especially when we look at the experiences of communities who have traditionally (and still are) invisible and marginalised!

Weeks J, Heaphy B and Donovan C. (2001) Same-Sex Intimacies: Families of Choice and Other Life Experiments, London: Routledge.

Weston K. (1991) Families We Chose: Lesbians, Gays, Kinship, New York: Columbia University Press.