Maeve McNelis is the coordinator for Switchboard, a Victorian LGBT+ group which runs a visitor program for the elderly living either independently or in assisted care facilities.
Paired seniors receive visits at their own homes, in nursing homes, or meet for coffee or the movies – “anything really,” McNelis says.
“One of our volunteers even goes to watch ‘The L Word’ each week with her partner.”
The group is one of at least four across Australia which offers such matching services – they include ACON in NSW, QuAC in Queensland and Umbrella Multicultural Community Care Services in Western Australia.
McNelis says both volunteers and those visited get an immense amount from the program.
“People that have had non-conventional lives, they’re maybe quite a bit bored by people of their generation, who are maybe more conservative,” the 30-year-old Melbournian says.
“So maybe they want someone they can have fun with – and to do things that aren't just stuffy, boring, old person’s stuff.”
Shane Campbell, ACON’s Home Based Care Coordinator, says he’s seen volunteers have a profound impact on clients.
“Some of the changes are just amazing – going from sitting in a corner not doing much at all to becoming far more open and confident,” he says.
He highlighted one case where a man had struggled to speak with other residents about the death of his same-sex partner.
”But he’s able to talk about it with our volunteer,” he says.
“The fact that he’s able to go through the grieving process with someone else – someone who’s from the community – is a really positive thing.”
McNelis says that older people may feel awkward telling LGBT+ stories to straight people their age – while younger volunteers can often be entranced.
“Having someone who’s interested in the stories that you're telling can just be so important,” she says.
While the services say they have plenty of volunteers, they’re struggling to identify LGBT+ seniors to match them with.
“We try and speak to aged-care providers and they say ‘oh, we don’t have any gay people’ – which is probably not true,” Maeve says.
In some cases, nursing homes may not be the most accepting and open places, but even in facilities that have gone out of their way to promote LGBT+ acceptance, seniors appear to be struggling to come out.
“People aren’t identifying to their aged care providers – it’s just not something that’s happening yet,” McNiels says.
Switchboard is trying to reach individuals directly, stressing that they’re discrete enough not to ‘out’ clients to others in their nursing home, or the facility itself.
Wayne Costello, Assessments and LGBTI Officer for Umbrella, has faced similar challenges in identifying clients.
“The younger generation don’t have the same issues, they’ve been out—they haven’t had to live half their lives with their personal life under a blanket,” he says.
“Some of these people had spare rooms set up in their homes so that if anyone came over it would look like they were living separately – they wouldn’t realise they were partners.”
“It’s been a difficult and long road – we’re getting there, but it’s been tough,” he says.
It’s a story familiar to Shane Campbell at ACON.
“Historically when they were growing up it was illegal to be gay, and they’ve been discriminated against in the past – so the institutionalised setting can be quite scary and triggering for them,” he says.
“There are people in our community who don’t go into care who probably should be going into care, and it’s for exactly that reason.”
The deaths of partners or supportive friends can further compound the situation.
Campbell says he would like to see LGBT+ status become a routine question on admission to residential care.
Dr Peter Robinson, a senior sociology and history lecturer at Swinburne University, says that inter-generational friendships have a lot to offer both parties, especially in the where sharing history and culture can be a challenge.
“We don’t have a space now where people of mixed ages can meet now and exchange experiences, advice and history,” he says.
“There’s a vitality that comes with youth which is something that I think all people enjoy – the inquisitive of young people is also something they enjoy.”
Switchboard asks its volunteers what motivates them, and McNeils says they get a wide range of responses.
“A lot of the volunteers say they want to give back to the generation that made it easier for them to come out,” she says.
Others are keen to learn more about the experiences of being LGBT+ in previous eras, or are looking for surrogate grandparents.
“As a younger generation, we’re not that linked into queer history, and we don’t have that personal connection with it because we don’t necessarily know people who were there,” McNelis says.
“A lot of people also have this conception, true or not, that older people aren’t as accepting – so you might not be out to your grandparents or it’s not a comfortable situation to be in. Our volunteers manage to get that inter-generational relationship another way.”