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

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