Out of isolation: UK charities reconnect older LGBTQ+ people | Mental health
Jo was first paired up with Pat four years, but her relationship with the 69-year-old has deepened such that she sometimes forgets they were introduced by a befriending scheme for LGBTQ+ over-50s.
“If I’ve had a crappy day, seeing Pat lifts my mood because she’s so upbeat and resilient,” the 33-year-old says. “If I’m struggling with a situation, I think ‘what would Pat say?’”
Jo and Pat were introduced by Opening Doors, the largest UK charity offering support for LGBTQ+ over-50s: it says demand for its services has increased substantially since the pandemic. Elsewhere, efforts are stepping up to focus on this overlooked demographic.
This spring Re-engage, a charity dedicated to combating social isolation in those aged over 75, launched a free telephone service, rainbow call companions, specifically for older LGBTQ+ individuals who would like to speak to someone from their community.
“All too often, isolation is seen by older LGBT+ people as the price they have had to pay for their sexuality,” says the Re-engage chief executive, Meryl Davies.
For Jo and Pat, the benefits of cross-generational queer support are manifest.
Beyond Covid, the pair have faced their own challenges since they first met: a major stroke affected Pat’s speech and mobility, while Jo has recently come out of a seven-year relationship. “We talk about patience and self-care in her recovery – she worked as a history teacher and gets frustrated that she can’t express herself so easily – and she’s shared with me how she felt when her own significant relationships ended,” says Jo.
“My friendship group is all my age and I don’t have living grandparents, so I really appreciate knowing someone with that life experience, and the fact it is queer life experience is even more meaningful.”
Pat says their relationship has brought warmth to her life. “If I feel lonely I say ‘oh forget it, another day’. I’ve lived on my own for a long time, lovers come and go but I have friends who are lifelong. Now I’ve got to know Jo, she’s a good friend for ever.”
A recent review by Re-engage reports that older LGBTQ+ people are more likely to live alone and be single, and less likely to see their biological family and have intergenerational relationships or children. This can often lead to “family of choice” dwindling or becoming unable to support one another as they age together.
It is a particular consideration for older transgender people, says Jennie Kermode, who has written a support guide for growing older as a trans or non-binary person. She notes this cohort are more at risk of family estrangement, especially if they came out later in life which many of their generation did, and this contributes to greater anxiety moving into new social spaces whether that is bingo, the tennis club or a retirement home.
It is a concern for Zoe Perry, a 77-year-old trans woman who came out at 73 and lost her partner last Christmas. “If my health starts to fail and having just been widowed then I may find myself in greater need of health and social provision. Current hostility towards trans women does make me uneasy. If some of the more extreme voices have their way I would not be able to find accommodation in a woman’s space.”
Jonathan Buckerfield, the head of fundraising and communications at Opening Doors, says: “Older LGBTQ+ people are less likely to have regular inter-generational contacts and – despite the myth of the ‘pink pound’ – can be struggling to pay bills.
“The people we work with have lived through years when their relationships were criminalised, and may go back in the closet as they get older because of fears about responses from neighbours or healthcare professionals. Sometimes the befriending relationship can be the first step towards reconnecting people with their communities.”
Dan Hughes from Swindon, who befriends with Re-engage, agrees that the older generation is often left behind by the gay community. “Even I feel that at the age of 41, now I’m not interested in going to clubs so much”.
He has been paired with an older gay man who shares his love of documentaries. “I’ve learnt a lot from him. We’re both interested in history and the royal family – he was born around the time of our current queen’s coronation. We’ve talked about the differences between when he came out and I did. I went to a gay youth group, for example, and had so much more available to me.
“It can be isolating for older people, especially if they’ve been in a long-term relationship and their partner dies. It’s important to have relationships where you can be free to be yourself.”