Above: Kellie Shields, LGBTI project officer at Uniting Care Ageing.
By Stephen Easton
Uniting Care Ageing (UCA) has claimed an industry first with the appointment of a specific project officer to reach out to older people from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) communities and help the organisation better meet their needs.
UCA, the ageing services arm of Uniting Care NSW.ACT and the largest aged care provider in the region, has appointed Kellie Shields to the newly created role, which is focused on forging links with organisations representing the LGBTI communities.
The new LGBTI project officer said she hoped to be able to improve and enhance the delivery of person-centred care, already being driven through the organisation’s 'Inspired Care' approach.
“You can't have a one-size-fits-all approach, because people are individuals,” Ms Shields said. “You can’t have one model of care that's right for every person. To deliver person-centred care you have to know people's individual stories and often, there’s unique health issues facing the elderly LGBTI communities.”
She will work across all of UCA’s services and with a steering committee, made up of various LGBTI community leaders: Ian Walker, director of community health and wellbeing at ACON; Gina Wilson, president of OII Australia; and Phinn Borg, manager of the Gender Centre.
They will be joined by Dr Michele Chandler, who has been engaged as an independent researcher and aged care consultant, and two executives from UCA.
“My overall objective is to look at the research, build links with lesbian gay, transgender and intersex communities, and establish really great models for future care,” Ms Shields said.
“And we want to be sure that we give a really clear message that Uniting Care Ageing services welcome people with diverse sexualities, and gender-diverse people.”
The position would also involve reviewing research on LGBTI health issues and finding areas where UCA communication materials could use more inclusive language, she said.
“There’s a growing awareness in the whole of the aged care industry that the LGBTI communities have absolutely been under-represented – the fact that we’ve got these elderly people in our community who have not been highlighted as a special needs group until very recently.”
The federal government announced in April that LGBTI seniors will be considered a ‘special needs group’ under the Aged Care Act, following a recommendation made by the Productivity Commission in last year’s report, Caring for Older Australians.
Older LGBTI Australians face unique issues compared to other seniors, often related to the historical criminalisation and persecution of some kinds of gender and sexuality.
“Those who grew up pre gay liberation have endured a lifetime of having been vilified as 'sinners' by the church, 'criminals' in law, and pathologised by medicine,” an article about ageing on the LGBTI Health Alliance website points out.
“Consequently, this group experiences ageing differently and has distinct needs compared to the baby boomer cohort which is now approaching retirement. After a number of decades of social progress, this cohort has lived openly as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or intersex.
“… For many, getting older means an increased fear of being "outed" after a lifetime of avoiding disclosure, or a fear of being sent back into the closet to avoid facing discrimination at a particularly vulnerable time in their lives.”
Ms Shields said that for the same reasons, there was an understandable distrust of faith-based organisations among the LGBTI communities, which often led to people not disclosing their full health or aged care needs for fear of discrimination.
“They have to be genuine partnerships and genuine links with the LGBTI community," she said. “Faith-based organisations have to demonstrate that they’re providing excellent staff education, support and most importantly, they have to let the LGBTI communities know that it’s OK to let us know that you may be gay or lesbian.
“…The only way to do that is to make sure we are sending the right messages, and really being part of the community.”
The executive director Uniting Care NSW.ACT, Reverend Harry Herbert, called on churches to embrace same sex marriage reforms earlier this year, and continues to lobby federal politicians to support the Marriage Amendment bills before Parliament.
“UnitingCare realises it’s not just about speaking out on inclusiveness, but then backing that up with money, time and resources,” Rev. Herbert said.
“I look forward to hearing what Ms Shields reports back to our organisation and to meet with stakeholders in the community myself.”