Living our lives out

A couple of years ago, I heard a story about an older lesbian who had to move into a sheltered housing scheme – and who had started dating men to fit in.

I had to ask myself, how is this still happening – that LGBTQ+ people have to go back into the closet and pretend not to be gay when they need sheltered housing or extra care as they get older?

When you wind that back, you can see why Tonic is needed.

Last year, we opened the UK’s first LGBTQ+ retirement community at Bankhouse, an ‘extra care’ scheme in Lambeth, on the south bank of the Thames.

Tonic’s first properties are available through the Older Persons Shared Ownership scheme, through which our residents part-own their flats and pay rent on the balance up to 75 per cent, while having the security of in-house care and support services.

“The last thing we want them to do is hit more system barriers”

More importantly, it’s an LGBTQ+ affirmative and safe space, where it’s just fine to be yourself.

It’s been a long journey to get this far, and we are still learning. But we have some insights that other providers, including councils, might find helpful in respect of improving their housing offer for older LGBTQ+ residents.

We have a community panel of people interested in being future residents who gave me a shopping list of the things that are really important to them, and which we have at Bankhouse: community spaces, the bar (!), outside spaces, wheelchair accessibility. 

But what came up time and time again was location – ‘a place where we feel safe, and we identify with’. 

LGBTQ+ communities are not necessarily ‘geographical’. In London, LGBTQ+ people live all over the city and they navigate to places – pubs, clubs and bars – to find community. Where community exists is not necessarily where they live, and a lot of people say they feel completely disconnected from their ‘local’ community.

Another thing people assume for older people – that their family will be there to support them with selling their homes, moving house, navigating the finances and the care requirements – doesn’t always apply to LGBTQ+ people, who may have been ostracised by their families, and were not allowed to have children, back in the days of criminalisation.

Something we didn’t even think of was that our customers just don’t fit the rules. For example, you must be aged 55 or over to be eligible for one of our flats. We have had a few gay men couples come to us who have big age differences – something that happens a lot in gay relationships, but not so often in the heteronormative world. 

We had a 92-year-old married to a 51-year-old interested in moving in. The 92-year-old needs this accommodation, but do they have to wait until he is 97 to move in? I don’t think the rules were designed to exclude people in this way, but nobody would have ever considered that this situation could occur. 

Our elders have lived different lives navigating what was, back then, a criminal offence, with people undergoing electric-shock conversion treatment. They have had to navigate an unconventional life around the system and now, at this stage, the last thing we want them to do is hit more system barriers.

As a provider and advocate for LGBTQ+ affirming supported housing, we are negotiating those barriers with our partners and trying to make the rules more inclusive and fairer – so no-one else has to go back in the closet as they get older.

Author

Tonic is a community-led, not-for-profit organisation focused on creating vibrant and inclusive urban LGBTQ+ affirming retirement communities, see www.tonichousing.org.uk

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