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How A Toronto Company Is Making Space For Queer Seniors

Taking the inclusivity journey one step at a time…

By Courtney Hardwick
As queer-identifying baby boomers age, it’s inevitable that many of them will call a long-term care facility home at some point in the not-so-distant future. For many LGBTQ2S+-identifying individuals, there is a very real fear that their sexual orientation and/or gender identity will not be respected or even acknowledged, and that they will feel pressure to go back into the closet. Toronto’s Rekai Centres, a company that includes two facilities in the downtown core with a third in the works, is dedicated to making sure that doesn’t happen.
Already, 20 per cent of the Rekai Centres’ residents openly identify as queer, and the number is only expected to grow. That’s why a top priority has become the creation of a safe, positive and welcoming environment for residents, visitors and staff regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. But true inclusivity doesn’t happen overnight.
“The initiative has been ongoing since 2009 and the reason for that is things take time. It’s not just about putting a sticker on the door or waving a flag,” says Barbara Michalik, director of community partnerships, programs and volunteer services at Rekai Centres. “Training needs to be ongoing…. It can’t be just during Pride.”
The ultimate goal is not only to provide a place where LGBTQ2S+ seniors can feel safe, accepted and celebrated, but also to educate staff and straight-identifying residents on how to be the best allies they can be. With “cultural humility,” everyone’s unique experience and needs can be both acknowledged and respected.
In support of that, LGBTQ2S+ Community Advisor Christopher Grondin runs two different events for the Gender Sexuality Alliance (GSA). One group meets every three months to talk about issues relating to sexual orientation, gender identity and community issues in a safe, collaborative space. The social GSA involves a monthly get-together for residents to interact. “We really put an emphasis on the allyship part. We encourage all residents to come in and ask questions, see what we’re doing and have fun with us,” says Grondin. “We really want to treat it as a learning opportunity.”
Inclusivity training is provided to staff members to equip them with a better understanding of how to provide the best care possible to LGBTQ2S+ residents. Through partnerships with community organizations such as Egale and Rainbow Health, the Rekai Centres have also focused on improving their administrative procedures. From revising policies to providing the option to select ‘partner’ instead of ‘husband’ or ‘wife’ on official forms, updating the language they use has gone a long way towards nurturing a more inclusive culture.
Visual signs of their mandate around the facilities include rainbow flags, a culture board that communicates programming and activities to residents, and the option for queer residents to post a rainbow sticker outside their rooms. Daily programming gets the residents interacting, and there are LGBTQ2S+-focused activities multiple times a month where everyone is invited to participate.
Recently, a survey targeting individuals from the community aged 50+ was conducted to gauge interest in a 25-bed unit dedicated to queer seniors. The results were overwhelmingly positive, with 94 per cent of respondents saying they are in favour of the unit.
As the company continues to work on next steps, Michalik hopes their efforts will be an example to other long-term care facilities. “None of this is mandatory. The Ministry of Health doesn’t say every long-term care home should be this,” stresses Michalik. “The human rights code says we should be inclusive and diverse, but we actually believe it.”

COURTNEY HARDWICK is a Toronto-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared online at AmongMen, Complex Canada, Elle Canada and TheBolde.

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