The following guest blog by James Taylor, Head of Policy at Stonewall has been written to complement our new collection of essays, ‘Alone in the Crowd: Loneliness and diversity’.
There are many causes of loneliness. One important cause is feeling you cannot form meaningful relationships simply because you’re afraid to show who you really are.
For gay, lesbian or bisexual people, growing older can be an isolating experience. Being scared to be yourself can mean social withdrawal, creating feelings of profound loneliness.
“My grandchildren don’t know me”
We live in a time when younger gay people in the UK are far more likely than earlier generations to feel able to share their sexuality, knowing they’re equal and valued members of society. However, for older gay people likely to have encountered greater discrimination because of their sexuality, it is all too common to have experienced lasting rejection because of who they are – even from family members. As one older gay woman said, “My two grandchildren don’t know me.”
Research shows that older gay, lesbian and bisexual people are more likely to live alone, and that less than a quarter see family members at least once a week. And when you’re unable to rely on the supportive family networks others take for granted, loneliness is almost inevitable.
Don’t ask, don’t tell
As they become more dependent on others in later life, a serious challenge for older gay people is a feeling that – even after a lifelong relationship – they’re unable to show their sexuality, almost as if they are expected to ‘come out’ all over again.
Memories of discrimination can be isolating, as encounters with support agencies seem all too familiar. Early in one older gay couple’s relationship, one would pretend to be the other’s brother so he could make a hospital visit. Many years later, he encountered an A&E receptionist who insisted on designating him ‘single’ despite their civil partnership.
Care homes can create an atmosphere in which residents are afraid to show their true selves. Some older partners may pretend to be friends or relations rather than openly demonstrate a loving gay relationship.
Different needs, equal care
Addressing the loneliness of older gay people means creating environments where everyone can be comfortable being themselves. This doesn’t mean treating people differently: it means treating people equally by recognising the needs unique to them.
For example, Kent County Council has developed a toolkit on sexual orientation, encouraging employees to talk openly about sexuality, and improving understanding among care home staff.
The Opening Doors initiative in London runs lunch clubs, support groups and befriending programs to make sure older gay people experience the kind of friendship and community everyone should enjoy.
We need to make sure the older gay community is visible, welcome, and celebrated. Then we can help ensure no-one in later life need suffer loneliness because of who they are.
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Loneliness affects older lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people in different ways. The ‘older older’ cohorts are more likely to be single, less likely to have children, more likely to be estranged from biological family. They are also more likely to have lived hidden, secret lives. In older age, ‘family of friends’ networks begin to diminish, through ill health and death. Older LGB people can feel marginalised by ageism in the LGB community and heteronormativity and homophobia in the older age community and formal older age support networks. But not all older LGB individuals are in this situation. Many, especially women, were previously married and have children and grandchildren, and are integrated into family life. But some have engaged with a same-gender sexuality later in life, and may have problems connecting with older LGB networks. Interestingly, the growth of lesbians with children can serve to marginalise and isolate lesbians without children, with whom they feel they have little in common.
Loneliness can be a bigger problem, oddly enough, in shared care and accommodation. Older LGB individuals may feel they have to hide their sexualities in order to feel accepted and included and this means denying a huge part of their lives, their histories and their selves. They may even tell their LGB friends not to visit them in order not to be exposed. This can be the source of the most profound sort of loneliness, the being ‘lonely in a crowd’ which is experienced by many older LGB individuals in sheltered accommodation and care homes.
Loneliness is gendered: older gay and bisexual men are marginalised by ageing and sexuality, older lesbians by ageing, gender and sexuality and in particular the greater cultural devaluation of older women. Notions of the ‘LGB/LGBT community’ are also misleading, suggesting far more commonality, overlap and spaces of reciprocal support. In reality older lesbians and gay men tend to have little to do with each other even in formal support networks, and older bisexual people are often ostracised by biphobia in both older LGB/LGBT and older heterosexual communities.
Tackling LGB loneliness requires an appreciation of the subtle nuances of the processes, and dynamics, involved.
Cronin, Ann and King, Andrew (2013) ‘Only connect? Older lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) adults and social capital.’ Ageing and Society FirstView Article January 2013, pp 1-22.
Fokkema, Tineke and Kuyper, Lisette (2009). ‘The Relation Between Social Embeddedness and Loneliness among Older Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Adults in the Netherlands.’ Archives of Sexual Behaviour, 38(2): 264-275.
Ward, Richard, Rivers, Ian and Sutherland, Mike (eds) (2012). Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Ageing: Biographical Approaches for Inclusive Care and Support. London: Jessica Kingsley
I am a 70 year old gay man, I lost my partner of 41 years to suicide two years ago due to depression.
We became the first uk civil partnership the day it was legal in Ripley Derbyshire, but kept it a secret.
Since Philips death I have lost everything, we had been in businesses together for 38 years, but after his death I could not function and due to my state of mind my business collapsed causing me to become bankrupt.
My very comfortable way of life was all gone, I now live in a virtual squat living on my state pensions.
I suffer from severe post traumatic stress disorder.
At no time since Philip died has anybody from the medical world asked how I am, if this was a married person mixed sex they would have had support, it was only six weeks ago that I was referred to a physiatrist.
I now look forward to a long and lonely old age.
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