The epidemic that affects older LGBT people worst
“Your friends start dying off. That’s not very nice.”
Brenda Keaveny* is 85 years old and lives alone in a two-story, detached house set against the sweeping landscape of the Peak District, Sheffield. She sits a little stiffly in her armchair, a warm cup of tea clasped in her hands. Her hair is a brilliant white and her make-up impeccable.
“My friend died last year,” she begins.
“Since we were in our 30s we would go into town together every Wednesday. We did that for all of those years,” she pauses to sip her tea. “It’s bound to happen though, if you live to be 85.
“If you haven’t got your mobility and you aren’t particularly gregarious, it must be very difficult. You’ve just got to keep going for as long as you can.”
And it would seem that as humans, we are doing just that.
Thanks to vast improvements in healthcare, education, science and technology, average life expectancy in the United Kingdom (and globally) has almost doubled in just 170 years. With an ageing population, however, comes a number of challenges, not least in exploring new solutions to halt the apparent rise in loneliness.
As most of us are now aware, whether through experience or thanks to a number of high profile campaigns, Brenda is just one of millions of older people in the UK who experience loneliness. She is fortunate in that she is still mobile and actively seeks engagement with others, but the statistics tell a different story.
Almost half (49%) of all people aged 75 and over live alone, over one million older people say they are always or often feel lonely, and 49% of those aged 65 and over say that television or pets are their main form of company.
The popular narrative of loneliness in older people has been made ever more prominent by the work of new organisations such as the Jo Cox Commission On Loneliness.
A survey published in March 2017 by website Gransnet, in association with the Commission, revealed that over half (56%) of Gransnet users who describe themselves as lonely, have
“never talked about their loneliness to anyone”, with the vast majority saying their close friends and family would be “quite surprised or even astonished to hear they feel lonely”.
These statistics are extremely compelling but actually only scratch the surface. Ninety-eight per cent of those who completed the Gransnet survey identified themselves as either white British or white other, almost entirely excluding British black and minority ethnic (BAME) older people. This, despite the fact Age UK found older ethnic minority groups experience much higher levels of loneliness than their white British counterparts: with 24% to 50% of those born in China, Africa, the Caribbean, Pakistan and Bangladesh reporting that they are lonely.
The archetypal image of the white, middle- class older person often found in the mainstream narrative on loneliness is, of course, representative of a great number of people in the UK, but this overarching image does not accurately represent a reality where some of the most vulnerable older people are found in underrepresented communities.
BACK IN THE CLOSET
According to Stonewall’s Lesbian, Gay And Bisexual People In Later Life report, LGB** people over 55 are more likely to live alone; 41% of LGB people live alone compared to 28% of heterosexual people. LGB people are also less likely to have children – just over half of lesbians and bi women have children compared to almost nine in 10 heterosexual women and men – and are also less likely to see biological family members on a regular basis; less than a quarter of LGB people see their biological family members at least once a week compared to more than half of heterosexual people.
As the statistics demonstrate, the generational prejudices and inequalities that the oldest members of our communities often experience means that older LGBT people are significantly more at risk of social isolation or feelings of loneliness than heterosexual people are.
Lynda Russell, chair of Kenric, a national organisation offering a social network to lesbians throughout the UK, agrees. “I definitely think that older LGBT people and older lesbians in particular are not proportionately represented by NGOS and charities. I think one of the biggest problems is lack of visibility – older women are hardly visible and older lesbians are almost entirely invisible.
“Loneliness and social isolation are huge issues for older lesbians and redressing this was one of the reasons that Kenric was founded. Although membership of our group is open to all lesbians, the vast majority of our members are aged over 40 with a significant proportion in their 60s, 70s and even their 80s.”
Russell adds: “Many of our members have little or no biological family in London or the South East. We also have a lot of members who find themselves single in their later years, so we try to provide a supportive environment for women to rebuild their social circles.”
And what about the experiences of older trans people? Age UK’S most recent report focuses on the experiences on LGB people, as Stonewall’s Later Life report does. Suzanna Hopwood, a member of Stonewall’s Trans Advisory Group and an ambassador for Opening Doors London, the biggest charity providing support specifically for older LGBT people in the UK, believes loneliness and isolation is a significant issue for trans women in particular.
“The risk and reality of loneliness and isolation is a significant issue for those older trans women rejected by friends and family. [If] perhaps they have lost their job and are financially insecure, they may be unable to sustain previous social relationships or form new ones and can find themselves in a very bad place indeed. Not least in terms of the risk to their mental health.”
WHAT CAN WE DO?
Our population and the communities within it will continue to age and, thankfully, charities and organisations working to improve wellbeing in later life are showing increasing awareness of issues affecting older people who are BAME or LGBT.
DIVA readers can also do their bit to reach out to those who may be experiencing loneliness or social isolation. Whether that’s by offering to pop to the shop for an elderly neighbour, calling an older relative or making the effort to spend time with a friend, there are little things we can all do to make a difference in someone else’s life. On top of that, Lgbt-focused organisations such as Opening Doors London rely on the work of volunteers to help support their members by hosting a wide range of social activities and befriending isolated individuals.
A WORD OF WISDOM
As the sun begins to lower over the Peak District, I ask Brenda what advice she would give to those of us who may be struggling with feelings of loneliness and isolation.
“One of the good things to do is to take up a hobby that you can still do as you get older, like art. I mean, you can’t still play tennis, but if you get a hobby that you can keep doing, it’s very good.” Anything else? “Take a day at a time and keep going for as long as you can.”
“Loneliness and social isolation are huge issues for older lesbians”
RESEARCH SHOWS AN EPIDEMIC OF LONELINESS THAT IS HITTING OLDER PEOPLE HARD – ESPECIALLY MINORITIES WORDS DANIELLE MUSTARDE