On Families and Connection

March 28, 2017

by CJ Rowe, Executive Director

 

When it comes to families I think I’m one of the lucky ones. Not only do I have an excellent birth family, my network of chosen family is really quite something, but that’s a different story.

I have two parents who have made it a point in their lives to love me and my siblings just as we are, though I know it hasn’t been without its struggles. Last month, I found out that my Dad reads this column each time its published. Hi Dad!

One of the exceedingly difficult things about having parents who live a full day and two flights away is that, as much as I hate to admit it, the fact that we are aging is becoming significant. My Mom is struggling with the hereditary brain disease, dementia. She’s still in the early stages but the signs are clear. Growing up, I witnessed my Mom struggle with similar concerns as my Gram and then my Mom’s older sister grappled with the evolving realities of living a life with dementia.

As my Mom’s memory and cognitive functions shift and the realities of the physical geographical distance between us sets in, I often wonder about what stories I might have missed hearing. Maybe it’s because I didn’t know how to ask the right questions or maybe I was just too foolish to listen and soak in all that was being shared with me over my lifetime. There are a lot of dynamics at play here and some of what bubbles to the surface for me is a question about how we as community members and individuals connect meaningfully to support our elders.

How do we support the elders in our LGBTQ/2S communities, those who might not have birth or chosen family at hand to offer friendship, support, and connection?

QMUNITY’s Seniors Program strives to:

  • increase access to culturally relevant support and care that contributes to health and wellness for aging and older LGBTQ/2S individuals
  • to increase awareness about the needs of aging and older people within LGBTQ/2S communities, and with service providers and seniors’ facilities
  • to decrease isolation for aging and older LGBTQ/2S people by providing models of cultural sensitivity and relevance for senior serving organizations, and
  • to build community capacity through the provision of age specific assessment, counselling, and referral.

There are opportunities for older adults and seniors to build community, access appropriate referrals and newsletters, and for isolated seniors to be connected with social supports through the Friendly Visitor Program.

There is also something inherently important about documenting the stories of the elders in our communities.

One evening this past September, I had the opportunity to join a theater full of community members for the public screening of Cory Ashworth’s The March Sweater Project. It was an evening full of warmth, laughter, and great appreciation. The audience was full of people of all ages and concluded with a standing ovation with deep appreciation for Cory’s vision and the stories shared by the elders participating in this project. As an audience member, it was thrilling to be sitting directly behind 3 of the older adults who collaborated in the project, one of whom is a longtime dedicated volunteer with QMUNITY. Words can’t describe the beautiful, loving, and generative space co-created by Cory, the audience, and the stories shared. You can view the videos yourself by following this link.

Stories are important, especially when elders in our communities are the ones who came before us, paving the way for me to be here in all the complicated ways that I am. That’s why it truly hurt my heart when I first read QMUNITY’s Aging Out report. This project came about largely as a result of feedback and reflections on the personal lived experience shared by members of the seniors and older adults who participate in QMUNITY’s seniors programming.

Participants shared:

“I have to go back into the closet. So then you have a person who has created an identity for themselves for 40 years, and now at a time when they are ill and when they are most vulnerable, they have to give up the identity that they have built, and give up themselves.”

“I think that transgendered people, face a harder aging period. I have been out for the last 20 years. I can’t imagine going back in the closet, I would commit suicide. Being trans, we have no closet to go back to.”

Discrimination and marginalization are common experiences of LGBTQ/2S seniors and older adults within care facilities, forcing many people “back into the closet.” QMUNITY is looking to update this report later this year.

I feel that there is nothing simple about seniors finding competent and inclusive care when moving from independent living to assisted living. It’s very complex to attempt to make changes in a system that was not built with LGBTQ/2S seniors and older adults and their realities in mind. In many ways this work is about changing the systems just as much as it is about changing individuals’ outlooks on life. If this change wasn’t complex, all nursing staff, health care practitioners, and service providers would know what to do and how to support LGBTQ/2S seniors and older adults with dignity, visibility, and respect. Sadly, this is still not yet the reality. There is much work to do.

And it is here that I think again about my Mom. She is supported by my Dad, by good friends, neighbours, my siblings, church members, and as much as I can do from here. I know the importance of finding and making opportunities for my Mom and other seniors and older adults to hang out, build, and sustain social connections in one’s communities.

For the seniors and older adults reading please remember to keep an eye out for QMUNITY’s Spring Fling which will take place in mid-April (April 21st, 5:00 -8:00pm @ Haro Park Centre) and consider joining the Older Adults and Seniors Programming Advisory Council (OASPAC). Feel free to reach out to Cass, QMUNITY’s Seniors Coordinator, to learn about ways that you can get more involved, connect meaningfully with others, and access competent supports.

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