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.