Michael Kirby addressing providers in Perth
Michael Kirby addressing providers in Perth. Photo: Richard O’Leary

The large number of migrant workers in the frontline aged care workforce who come from countries with less progressive attitudes may present a challenge to the implementation of the national gay and lesbian aged care strategy, former High Court justice Michael Kirby has said.

While migrant workers from developing countries brought skills and positive attributes, they often came from cultures that retained “the old hostility and objection” to LGBTI people and to the idea of homosexuality as a phenomenon, Mr Kirby told the ACSA/IAHSA Joint International Conference in Perth on Tuesday.

Mr Kirby, who was a High Court justice from 1996 to 2009, referred to the Philippines, which had struggled to implement laws against discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation and gender identity. “They’ve had a bill before the last seven congresses… but can’t get it to move forward.”

Research in 2010 had found that 86 per cent of workers in aged care facilities were unaware of the existence of LGBTI in aged care, which Mr Kirby said “indicated the level of knowledge and attitudes toward this minority in the aged care sector.”

Mr Kirby said Australia had made a lot of progress on addressing discrimination and negative attitudes but the current cohort of LGBTI seniors – who had witnessed the change in attitudes among medical and legal professionals, and society in general – were now wondering if they had to “go back in the closet” as they entered aged care.

‘Fasten your seat belts’

More broadly, Mr Kirby said that aged care providers, staff and families also needed to face up to the reality that older people in aged care had sexual desires and needs.

“The children with flowers in their hair are coming to aged care near you, and it’s important that we start to think about how in aged care we deal with sexual expression of the entire cohort entering aged care… Fasten your seat belts, because this is something that needs to be considered,” he said.

Sexual expression among residents and fulfilling their sexual needs was often a source of conflict for family members and providers, who may have concerns around exploitation, infection, embarrassment and financial implications, he said.

This was particularly the case when the sexual expression concerned reflected same-sex sexual orientation or a different sexual identity from the norm.

Investigations had shown that sexual desires and their manifestations were among the very last human feelings that close down as an individual declines in mental and physical capacity, Mr Kirby said. “The holocaust literature demonstrates that even in direst circumstances of degradation, terror and starvation, the sexual flame continue to burn,” he said.

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1 Comment

  1. Michael Kirby makes a valid point particularly for residential care. While education strategies can help, people are essentially guided by their values and cultural influences of their country of origin or family. It takes a long time [and I know this as a migrant] to engage with the challenges of diversity be it sexuality, sex or gender. It’s a process of continuous understanding and clarification of one’s own ideas.. essentially an intellectual understanding of diversity.

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