Empowering the Voices of LGBT Individuals with Dementia

A seminar in London organised by the Dementia Engagement and Empowerment Project (DEEP) and facilitated by myself, was attended by over 40 people this week, to discuss how we can give greater individual and collective voice to lesbians, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) people with dementia. Attendees included dementia service providers and advocates, older LGBT service providers and advocates, older LGBT people themselves, and academics working in the field of LGBT ageing and/or dementia. There were three excellent speakers: Rachael Litherland from DEEP; Sally Knocker (trainer, consultant and writer) and Dr Elizabeth Price (Senior Lecturer, University of Hull). Two short films were shown: one from Opening Doors London (which includes a gay men with memory problems in need of befriending and extra support) and a training clip from GenSilent (which features, among others, a gay couple dealing with one partner’s dementia; a lesbian couple pondering their future care needs; and a trans women who is dying, is estranged from her family, and lacks support). One of the most amazing things about the seminar was that it started without us! Many people arrived early, some by almost an hour, and struck up vibrant and deeply engaged conversations. These continued even after we introduced the planned bits of the seminar, and went on over the tea break, and into the group discussions which then followed.

LGBT individuals with dementia are not one homogenous group (1). As dementia is age-related and women outlive men, then older lesbians and bisexual women are likely to be disproportionately affected by dementia (women outnumber men with dementia 2:1) (2). This, together with relatively diminished social support in later life, means that older lesbians are likely to also be disproportionately represented in care homes for people with dementia. By contrast, gay and bisexual men who do find themselves in those spaces will be a minority in a minority due to both gender and sexuality. Many LGB people are impacted by the lack of recognition of LGB carers of someone with dementia (3) and of LGB health and social care service users, including in dementia provision (4). This is nuanced by gender: older women are particularly concerned about being around potentially sexually disinhibited behaviour of heterosexual men with dementia; and many older lesbians and gay men want integrated provision, but many also want gender and/or sexuality specific care. This is also nuanced by sexuality: many bisexual individuals suffer from the disappearing ‘B’ in LGBT (5), being assumed to be heterosexual if single or in a relationship with a person of another gender and being assumed to be lesbian or gay if in a relationship with someone of the same gender.

Trans individuals (who may or may not identify as LGB) are concerned with both shared and particular issues (6). Those particularities include: concerns about transphobia; being worried about not being able to cross-dress; being very concerned about receiving personal care if their physical bodies are not congruent with their gender performance; and, among those who have transitioned, being concerned that if they have dementia, as it progresses, they may no longer remember that they have transitioned, and may revert to performing according to the gender which they were assigned at birth.

A wide ranging number of themes emerged across the seminar. These included: the issue of how to ‘find’ LGBT people with dementia who may be hidden both by their dementia and by their sexualities and/or gender identities; the importance of making sure any project which aims to empower LGBT people with dementia is driven by LGBT people with dementia; concerns about heteronormativity, homophobia, biphobia and transphobia among dementia service providers and dementia service users; the importance of training and practice development among service providers (7); the importance of both mainstream providers and the LGBT ‘community’ taking responsibility for addressing these concerns; and the need to take into account the needs of queer/polyamorous/non-labelling individuals with dementia who can often be hidden in generic LGBT discourse.

All attending the seminar were agreed that it was a very successful and stimulating event, and hopefully would lead on to the development of a number of different projects which will give greater voice to LGBT individuals with dementia in the future. A range of possibilities were discussed, including making mainstream dementia advocacy more inclusive of LGBT individuals with dementia, and LGBT intergenerational projects, which would involve LGBT befrienders supporting LGBT individuals with dementia. DEEP will be keeping all those who attended informed in future developments. Anyone wishing to know more, should contact the Dementia Engagement and Empowerment Project (DEEP)

(1) Newman, R. and Price, E. (2012) ‘Meeting the Needs of LGBT People Affected by Dementia,’ in R. Ward, I. Rivers & M. Sutherland Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Ageing: Biographical Approaches for Inclusive Care and Support, pp183- 195, London: Jessica Kingsley. [Accessible via: http://bit.ly/1dGiQCb]

(2) Knapp, Martin, et al. (2007) Dementia UK: a Report to the Alzheimer’s Society. London: Alzheimer‘s Society.

(3) Price, E. (2012) ‘Gay and lesbian carers: ageing in the shadow of dementia’, Ageing & Society, 32: 516-532.

(4) Ward, R., River, I. & Sutherland, M. (eds) (2012) Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Ageing: Biographical Approaches for Inclusive Care and Support, London: Jessica Kingsley

(5) Jones, R. (2010) ‘Troubles with bisexuality in health and social care.’, in: Jones, Rebecca L. and Ward, Richard (eds) LGBT Issues: Looking beyond Categories. Policy and Practice in Health and Social Care (10), pp 42-55, Edinburgh: Dunedin Academic Press, pp. 42–55.

(6) Auldridge, A., et al (2012) Improving the Lives of Transgender Older Adults: Recommendations for Policy and Practice. New York: Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders and National Center for Transgender Equality

(7) Suffolk Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Network (2012) Providing Quality Care to LGBT Clients with Dementia in Suffolk: A Guide for Practitioners; Alzheimer’s Society (2013) Supporting lesbian, gay and bisexual people with dementia. Alzheimer’s Society Factsheet 480. London: Alzheimer’s Society:

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