When Maggie Redding and Sylvia Daly told staff at their retirement complex that they were in a civil partnership 13 years ago, they expected a positive reaction. But Redding, now 83, and Daly, now 80, found themselves suddenly so ostracised by other residents at the complex in Wales that they felt obliged to move out. They had to put their leasehold flat in the development up for sale.
The experience makes the women especially appreciative that they now live in a complex — the New Larchwood on the edge of Brighton, on England’s south coast — that explicitly markets itself as “LGBT+ affirmative”, meaning it seeks to be supportive of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and other non-heterosexual residents.
The couple’s story illustrates some of the challenges facing the growing numbers of older LGBT+ people as they contemplate moving into retirement housing. Activists and housing providers in Europe and North America increasingly recognise that the group faces particular risks and has specific needs from retirement homes of all kinds.
While there are no reliable figures about how many older LGBT+ people will need residential care in the next few years, no one believes that most countries’ current sparse or non-existent provision is meeting their needs.
Opening Doors, a charity for older LGBT+ people, calculates that there are about 600,000 such people aged over 65 in the UK, but that they often fare badly in residential care.
“You can see why,” says Ben Thomas, research and policy co-ordinator for Opening Doors. “They’re probably the only LGBT person in there, so they go back into the closet.”
Tonic@Bankhouse, which opened last year near London’s Lambeth Bridge, is the first retirement complex in the UK to admit only people from the LGBT+ community. Similar facilities have been operating in the US, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands. Manchester City Council is working with several partners on such a care home too.
Trish Hafford-Letchfield, head of the school of social work and social policy at the University of Strathclyde, says the questions around provision of housing are complex. “A lot of it will be in the private sector and [development will be based] around who has the resources to do it,” she says. “It’s going to be different markets that emerge.”
From a physical standpoint, New Larchwood is indistinguishable from any other retirement home. The facility, opened in 2005, is decorated in pastel colours and has lifts, wide doorways and communal areas where residents can mingle. Redding and Daly’s only gripe is that it’s an inconvenient four miles from central Brighton, a hub of gay culture, where they have been able for the first time in their lives to walk hand-in-hand.
“It’s uphill to the bus stop — that’s the only problem,” Daly says, before adding that Redding’s new, powered wheelchair should alleviate that challenge.
Sarah Jones, chief executive of Anchor Housing, which runs the complex, says the only difference between New Larchwood and their other facilities is that staff there have been trained to make it especially welcoming for LGBT+ people.
Thomas emphasises the importance of staff training by telling the story of one gay man he met who lived in a care home. He describes the man’s dismay at being invited to an event where residents would bring their wedding photographs and discuss them. “This guy said, ‘I felt totally isolated and alienated,’ ” Thomas recalls. “ ‘I don’t have a partner. How was I meant to join in that experience?’ ”
Older lesbian and gay people are disproportionately likely to live alone, are far less likely than the wider population to have a partner or children and are often estranged from their biological families, Thomas says. The factors together make them especially vulnerable to social isolation, mental health problems and other factors that may force them into residential care, he adds.
A building on the corner of Myrtle Avenue and St Edwards Street, in Brooklyn, suggests there is real potential for housing aimed at older LGBT+ people to tackle such isolation. The 17-storey building, opened in December 2019 and known as Stonewall House, was New York State’s first housing development aimed specifically at older LGBT+ people. Construction was supported by Sage, an operator of day centres for older LGBT+ people throughout New York City.
Today, members of that group account for around half its residents — anti-discrimination laws make it impossible in the city to operate housing aimed solely at a single group.
David Vincent, Sage’s chief programme officer, says many of the older people for whom Stonewall House was designed have faced past discrimination in obtaining housing.
“We want to provide LGBTQ+ older adults with a safe place, where they can age safely and at home and in a community with some supportive services that can help them thrive,” he says. The positive effect on those who have previously felt isolated can be incredible. “Now all of a sudden they have people to go for walks with, they have people to have coffee with or they’re doing culture,” he says.
The vision of creating a sustaining community of older people is shared by members of London Older Lesbian Cohousing, a group aiming to build a jointly owned and managed housing scheme for older lesbians in north London. Liz Kelly, a lecturer at London Metropolitan University with a long history of involvement in feminist politics, says the group emerged from discussions with other lesbians about the closing phases of their lives.
The group is seeking to put into practice the feminist ideals for which the women involved have been struggling for decades. LOLC now has 15 full members who have completed an admission process in which both sides consider whether the project is right for them. Another seven are associate members, part way through that process.
“We started to think, ‘Why don’t we create something that works for us and that brings together that wish for autonomy and independence that we all fought for as young women with a sense of community?’ ” Kelly says.
Yet Kelly’s project, like the others, faces a delicate balance between creating a strong sense of community for residents and catering for the inevitability that they will grow physically frailer.
The group was working for a period with L&Q, a social housing provider, and had identified a site in Waltham Forest to build 25 units. However, the women are currently rethinking their approach after L&Q decided in October to end its involvement.
“The idea is that the flats will be lifetime homes, designed on the assumption that at some point you might be in a wheelchair [and] you might need more space to move around than as a young person, with a lift so that you’re never marooned,” Kelly says.
Anchor Housing is particularly attuned to the challenges of helping residents whose health deteriorates. Most of its facilities, unlike New Larchwood, are designed for people suffering with dementia.
Redding and Daly say they are happy with the arrangements at New Larchwood to care for them whatever happens to their health. “I’m quite happy to die here,” Redding says when asked about her future care. Pointing at Daly, she adds: “I don’t want anyone taking me to hospital.”
But, she says, “I do not want to go. I’m having too good a time.”