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Aging in the right place for LGBTQ2S+ Older Adults
By Amber Dukart, Research Assistant, Aging in the Right Place (AIRP) Project
For our SSHRC/CMHC partnership project, “aging in the right place” involves supporting older adults to live as long as possible in their homes and communities, while recognizing that where an older person lives impacts their ability to age optimally and must match their unique lifestyles and vulnerabilities. But what does aging in the right place mean for LGBTQ2S+ older adults?
I recently met virtually with Hilary Chapple, an older person with lived experiences of homelessness and one of our project advisors, to hear about her experiences and perspectives of aging in the right place. Hilary is a proud queer woman and avid community builder and advocate. At the age of 61, she is involved with the Calgary Homeless Foundation Advisory Committee, the Women's National Housing and Homelessness Network, and the Longest Night of the Year Memorial for members of the homeless community in Calgary, Alberta, to name a few.
Hilary knows firsthand the challenges of trying to age in the right place as a queer older adult. Six years ago, she was homeless for “two years, one month, and 24 days”. During that time, she lived in 12 separate short-term housing units and was part of the hidden homeless - crashing on couches and in spare rooms on eleven different occasions. She lost all her belongings and arrived at a shelter in Calgary with only two outfits. Hilary shared that during this time she felt a lot of anger, sadness, and trauma due to the uncertainty and instability she experienced. Things eventually did shift for Hilary. While staying in the shelter, Hilary met her now wife online, and as she describes it, “we went for coffee, fell in love, and I asked her to marry me three months later”. Hilary has lived with her wife, who she fondly calls her “housing first”, their dog Dodger, and cat Milo for the past five and a half years. She is grateful to now live a quiet life. “Of everything I’ve got here, safety is my number one issue. I'm safe”.
When asked why being involved with AIRP was important to her, Hilary shared, “so I can help to do research with my own experience to make things better for others who come after me”. Being a member of the LGBTQ2S+ community, Hilary knows there are a lot of housing options that don’t accept LGBTQ2S+ older adults or don’t treat them with dignity and respect they rightly deserve. She wants to put in her “two cents worth” as a queer older adult to help change that situation.
For Hilary, aging in the right place means aging gracefully and comfortably and most importantly, feeling safe. A big piece of that for her is feeling connected to the people around her and having the love and support of friends and community. She spoke of the importance of meeting people, feeling connected to those around us, and having a sense of purpose – all things that are beneficial at any age but especially important for us as we age. Hilary highlighted the importance of community, particularly for LGBTQ2S+ older adults, since it can be an isolating experience. She highlighted programs like Calgary Rainbow Elders, which organizes meet ups and events for older adults, so they feel less alone.
In addition to having a community of support, Hilary stressed how crucial accessibility and affordability are for older adults to age in the right place— living near a community hub where you are close to shopping, banking, doctors, dentists, and pet shops. Having a place to call home that is accessible so that you are able to cook, clean, and relax without giving up your independence. Being comfortable with having enough food, paying the rent, and the ability to comfortably enjoy the last years of your life—these are all essential.
When asked what advice she has for social workers like myself, who work with older adults, Hilary shared how important it is to treat everyone with respect and dignity. She eloquently said, “be where the other person is at, otherwise they will react, retract, and not interact”. She also emphasized the importance of knowing the community you work in – whether that is the queer community, older adult community, or homeless community. In Hilary’s words, “find out the culture from that community, respect it, and help with it”. My conversation with Hilary reminded me how much of an impact the little things can make for older adults – whether that is phoning just to check in, lending a hand with shopping, treating them to lunch, or picking up pet food for their dog at home. The insights that Hilary shared are ones I will carry with me in my social work practice. Hilary’s story has highlighted the importance of taking the time to understand an older adult’s perspective, seeing the person behind each story and circumstance, and acknowledging and addressing the unique needs of each older adult I work with.
What is aging in the right place for Hilary? “It's being comfortable. It's being able to be yourself, love yourself, to still respect yourself, and be who you are without being told what you should be; not living in fear”. Let’s ensure that LGBTQ2S+ older adults like Hilary have the ability to age gracefully, safely, and comfortably in the right place.
Amber is a clinical Master of Social Work thesis student at the University of Calgary and a Research Assistant with the Aging in the Right Place (AIRP) project in Calgary.