Last week was a big one for Australia’s aging gay and lesbian community.

Not only did ACON release its Healthy GLBT Aging Strategy, which looked at putting resources in place for the older generation, but issues facing older gays and lesbians were discussed at two national aging conferences in Sydney.

These developments are significant because until now, older gays and lesbians have been virtually invisible to the aged care industry, the government and the community.

The fact the president of influential body the Australian Association of Gerontology (AAG), Professor Tony Broe, last week acknowledged that aging gay men and lesbians could no longer be ignored was particularly significant.

He said it was important to look at the silencing, intentional or not, of non-heterosexual identities in the area of aged care.

While over time this prejudice may dissipate, for the time being it is affecting the health and well being of the current aging GLBT community, Broe said.

The refusal to consider gay and lesbian issues in aged care is one of the major problems.

Jo Harrison, of the University of South Australia, has been at the forefront of research into issues affecting aging GLBT people. She said the culture of heteronormativity in aged care, where carers and medical professionals simply assume everyone is heterosexual, needed to change.

This led to a cycle of invisibility, Harrison said. People say GLBT people don’t exist and we don’t have any in our nursing homes, so people are afraid and don’t come out. And on the cycle goes.

One GP at last week’s AAG conference said gay men and lesbians had to make their sexuality clear so professionals knew they were there.

A lot of people were really affronted by that, Harrison said. I think the message that needs to get through about forcing people out, particularly the current generation of people who might actually be living in residential care and aren’t out, is that the onus is on the service providers.

One area where older same-sex couples are particularly disadvantaged is the Centrelink assets test for residential aged care. When someone in a heterosexual marriage or de facto relationship requires residential care, they are assessed by Centrelink to determine what level of fees they have to pay. The family home is immediately excluded from the assets test.

With a same-sex couple, because there’s no commonwealth recognition and the entire aged care system doesn’t recognise them, that house is counted in to the assets which means there may be much, much higher fees involved, Harrison said.

It means some same-sex partners are losing their homes because they have to sell it when one partner goes into residential care, or they’re having to pay exorbitant fees. It’s appalling.

ACON has said it will lobby government on behalf of the aged community, and Australia may be set to get its first formal gay and lesbian aging advocacy organisation as well.

Harrison said an informal group called the GLBTI Aging Network had been set up by a group of researchers on gay and lesbian issues, with members now including service providers, activists and older gay and lesbian people.

Everyone examining issues facing aged gays and lesbians agrees more research is needed in the area. But one of the big challenges is that older gays and lesbians are often hard to find.

Researcher Simon Morris, from the University of Ballarat, said trying to find older gay men to take part in studies was like finding a needle in a haystack.

Morris is conducting a mental health project looking at if older gay people feel they belong within the gay community and in the general community.

Feeling you belong overall to society is what’s important for your mental health. How you feel people value you and how you feel you fit in generally is the greatest predictor of your mental health, Morris said.

The idea you fit in society, that you have something to contribute -“ if you haven’t got that it’s quite difficult to then go on and feel good about yourself.

What we’re yet to see is exactly how important fitting in to the gay community is for older men.

Noel Hunter, 78, is a volunteer with Mature Aged Gays In the Community (MAGIC). He visits older men who are in hospital or sick at home and keeps them company. We more or less offer moral support, Hunter said.

Isolation is one of the biggest problems for older gays and lesbians, and the men he visits often have fewfamily or friends.

One of the difficulties we have, which applies to men in general, is they’re very reluctant to say they need help or want someone to visit them, he said.

Hunter finds his work with MAGIC fulfilling because he’s interested in men and men’s issues.

I don’t particularly identify strongly on gay issues. I hope I identify on human issues and human needs, he said.

Among his own family everyone knows he is gay but it’s rarely mentioned. As for being discriminated against as an older gay man in society, he said gay people can be just as discriminating as a heterosexual group sometimes. But I’m fairly free and open about lots of things.

For some gay men, aging is proving a positive thing. Rob Guillemot, 63, is a personal trainer at Gold’s Gym in Surry Hills. He’s currently seeing someone who is 28 years old and said he is having the best time of his life. But 10 years ago it was a different story.

At the age of 53 Guillemot was overweight and when his partner broke up with him he thought it was because of the way he looked. When he then moved into the city and went to his first Mardi Gras, I realised I was fat, I was unattractive, I was being marginalised.

I felt really quite depressed about it. I realised that unless I did something about it no one else was going to.

He joined a gym, lost 35 kilos and became a personal trainer. Not only did he feel a lot better about himself but men began to give him a lot more attention.

It was like a reinvention of my own sexuality and that was revelatory as far as I was concerned, because I thought that had all finished. I thought it was a dead issue, Guillemot said.

Guillemot also enjoys being relative in the community, helping people, which I think I’m doing at the gym and also in my life coaching.

He does think about the future but he’s not too worried about it. He can see himself working for at least another 10 years.

Someone like me is in a tunnel, and you can see a light at the end of the tunnel, and that’s death. What are you going to do? Are you going to live towards death or die towards death? he said.

Obviously it’s the former, and you’re going to make it the best time of your life.

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