Sexual identity and care home provision: some reflections on the research process

My colleagues and I at Swansea University have recently completed a mixed-methods study into the provision of inclusive care to older lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people in residential and nursing care environments in Wales – an elongated title for saying, ‘how well are older LGB recognised and cared for in care homes?’ We know from the literature that heterosexism in residential care provision can mask the sexual health needs, diversity and desires of older LGB residents. Prior research from Australia and the United States has identified institutional and historical barriers that prevent older people ‘coming out’, or identifying as LGB to care providers (Barrett, 2008; Jackson, Johnson & Roberts, 2008; Knockel, Quam & Croghan, 2010; Tolley & Ranzijn, 2006). Our research was funded by the National Institute for Social Care and Health Research (NISCHR) and had a unique focus on Wales as a UK nation with devolved responsibility for providing health and social care to its citizens, including older people. Residential and nursing homes (private and local authority-owned) from across Wales took part. Two methods were used to gather staff perspectives on inclusive care —self-completed questionnaires (121 respondents), and focus groups with care staff and managers (5 groups) from 32 organisations. Other methods included: content analysis of Care and Social Services Inspectorate Wales (CSSIW) Inspection reports (383 reports) to identify content pertaining to sexuality, sexual health and LGB identities; and, semi-structured interviews with 29 older LGB-identifying adults about their hopes and expectations for future care. The final report is available online and provides an overview of the key findings and recommendations: http://www.swan.ac.uk/humanandhealthsciences/research/research-impact/lgb-residential-care-report/

What follows are some brief reflections on the process of involving care organisations in the research – reflective comments on the research process that do not always make the final edit of reports and papers but may help steer future research in this domain.

Willingness to participate and learn – We initially anticipated that seeking care home participation would be the biggest challenge in recruitment because of the politically-charged nature of the topic and our concern that staff and managers would interpret our research endeavours as a critical appraisal of their practice.  Instead, we were struck by the enthusiasm of staff and managers to participate. Using a random sampling method, we invited 51 organisations to participate with 19 declining. Most of these homes declined because of impeding closures that created logistical barriers to their involvement. For some staff groups, participation in a focus group was framed as an informal learning opportunity into an area that receives little time and attention, an unexpected but positive outcome. Across focus groups, there was general agreement of a ‘need to know more’ about sexual difference and LGB histories. Participating staff members conveyed an awareness of progressive shifts in legislation and social attitudes but in equal measures expressed a willingness to be more mindful of the sexual biographies of residents in their care.

Sexuality, dementia and everyday care – While our research focused on sexual identity and social inclusion, a connected and equally pertinent topic that frequently emerged in focus groups was the complexity of balancing issues of sexual expression, dementia and informed consent. Staff elaborated on the challenges of negotiating sexual relationships and intimate contact between residents with declining mental capacity alongside responding to the often divided opinions of family members. Listening to these accounts of complex care deepened our appreciation for staff members’ commitment to respecting the rights and choices of residents in their care and to continually ‘do the right thing’. It also brought home the ethical complexity of providing care in these settings for employees who were in receipt of a low financial reward just above the minimal wage with little professional recognition.

Missing voices from the research – Staff views and accounts conveyed through the research represent predominantly White perspectives. The majority of participating staff and mangers were white, heterosexual women born in Wales and of mainly Christian background. This clearly did not match our observations of staffing groups when entering homes – we noticed many participating homes employed staff from black and ethnically diverse groups, including individuals from African and Asian migrant communities. We were limited to the staff available to speak to us between rotating shifts and group membership was often facilitated by senior staff members operating as ‘gatekeepers’ for their organisations. It is difficult to pinpoint whether individual staff from migrant and ethnically diverse communities opted not to participate for personal or religious reasons or whether they were not approached to participate; we can only speculate about possible barriers to participation. Ethical requirements prevented us from actively approaching individual staff to participate. Finally, we did not anticipate the eagerness of ancillary staff members (such as cleaners, kitchen staff etc.) to have a say in the research. It became increasingly clear that their various duties involved regular contact with residents and their views were of equal importance in the provision of inclusive care. We confess to underestimating the validity and contribution of these staff members’ perspectives; food for thought for future research.

I hope the above reflections are of some benefit to other researchers and practitioners engaged in research in an area of increasing interest. Putting these observations to paper has been valuable for me in capturing the often sidelined messages about research into organisations providing care to others.

Barrett, C. (2008). My People: A project exploring the experiences of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex seniors in aged-care services Retrieved 16th October 2009, from http://www.matrixguildvic.org.au/MyPeopleReport2008.pdf

Jackson, N.C., Johnson, M.J. & Roberts, R. (2008). The potential impact of discrimination: fears of older gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender individuals living in small- to moderate-sized cities on long-term health care. Journal of Homosexuality, 54(3), 325-339.

Knockel, K.A., Quam, J.K. & Corghan, C.F. (2011). Are Old Lesbian and Gay People Well Served? Understanding the Perceptions, Preparation, and Experiences of Aging Services Providers. Journal of Applied Gerontology, 30(3), 370-389.

Tolley, C. & Ranzijn, R. (2006). Predictors of heteronormativity in residential aged care facilities. Australasian Journal on Ageing, 25(4), 209-214.

About the author: Paul Willis is Senior Lecturer in social work in the College of Human and Health Sciences at Swansea University. His research interests include ageing, sexuality and social care; wellbeing and identity construction of LGBT youth; and social inclusion in organisations. Email: P.B.Willis@swansea.ac.uk