As Pamela Sheaves approaches 60, the usual concerns about aging are on the horizon.
There are worries of loneliness, and trying to stay independent as long as possible. But as a member of Newfoundland and Labrador's LGBTQ community, as she looks to her future decades, other thoughts weigh on her, too.
"Acceptance. That's so important," said Sheaves, who lives in St. John's. "The ability to feel safe and secure in care, and to have the supports within the community."
Acceptance and safety aren't guaranteed, she said, having heard from others' experiences, particularly in long-term care.
"Many seniors in the LGBT+ community, out of fear, go back into the closet," she said. "This is detrimental to persons' mental health and physical health as well.… There's a great deal of fear there."
A new report, considered the first of its kind, sheds more light on what faces LGBTQ seniors in Newfoundland and Labrador, and offers up ideas for change. The report by Quadrangle N.L., a group that seeks to bolster the province's LGBTQ community, involved surveying and interviewing community members over the age of 50, as well as long-term care providers.
While national studies on LGBTQ seniors have drawn a little bit of data from this province, the smaller community in Newfoundland and Labrador means getting a better sense of the landscape here can help create targeted responses, said one of the report's researchers.
"Things need to be more intentional in order to address that loneliness and isolation that often happens as we age," Ailsa Craig told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show.
Echoing Sheaves's concerns, Craig said discrimination fears within communal living settings or with in-home care was one theme that cropped up in the report.
While 37 long-term care providers were asked for their input, only four responded. But Craig said that delay was more due to COVID-19 overwhelming the system than the survey itself, and the responses that did come in were useful and aligned with what's being seen on a national level.
All of the long-term care centres surveyed said their staff had no training to address LGBTQ seniors' needs.
"One of the things that came out is that people believe that there's nobody in the home who is a member of our communities," said Craig.
With that knowledge now in hand, the researchers hope there could be a boost in training. Quadrangle N.L. is working with Memorial University's nursing school to create a booklet for long-term care staff, educating them on terminology, how to hold pride events, and other year-round acceptance and diversity measures.
"It's all about just making sure that it's more inclusive, and that people are actually are given the tools and access to knowledge, that they can really empower people within those facilities," said Quadrangle N.L. executive director Charlie Murphy.
Ensuring staff don't assume heterosexuality is also important, said Craig. "If those assumptions aren't built into the training, then it makes it a more welcoming place."
Bridging the generation gap
The current crop of LGBTQ seniors in the province face a future complicated by the heightened discriminations of the past.
"The people that we were talking to for this are among the first generation who lived through when everything was legalized, right?" said Craig. "And not just marriage being legalized, but just existing being legalized, without there being fear of repercussions."
Being among the first publicly out individuals has repercussions, Craig said; older community members don't have the same rates of marriage or children, which is often associated with better financial stability and increased social connections. Half the people surveyed had incomes below $35,000 annually.
The report points to a need to increase ways to give LGBTQ seniors a chance to connect, with each other and younger people too.
"Cross-generational events and possibilities and spaces are really crucial within our community, because you have to find our elders. We're not a community that necessarily reproduces ourselves genetically," said Craig.
"So you have to be able to reach out to each other across ages and find those opportunities for that kind of continuity and connection across age ranges."
Sheaves said there's ageism within the LGBTQ community, and better education within the community needs to happen.
"Because our history is not complied, because our history is not recorded, and because our history is not taught or available to our own youth, a lot of messages get lost there, and the older community is sometimes not valued, " she said.
Connecting generations is part of Quadrangle N.L.'s mandate, said Murphy, and the report highlights how important that is to continue, "just always incorporating everyone, as one big collective unit."
The report was compiled with assistance from the LGBT seniors' group Gray Gays N.L. — Sheaves is a co-founder and former member of the group — and financial help from the City of St. John's.