26/11/2015 5:01 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:50 PM AEST

Growing Old And Gay

Most of the problems the GLBTIQ community experiences in accessing services all return to this one issue: we are not equal. Being 'less than' in Australia leads to problems with mental health, isolation and a sense of failing to be part of a more global community.

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Close up of son holding his mothers hands in hospital

My Mum had an accident recently and entered a rehab facility to recover. It was a pretty stressful time for me, as suddenly I found myself thrown in among the frailty of life in its final chapter.

On one of my many visits, I met a woman called Adele* who was waiting to go to an aged care facility which is commonly referred to as a nursing home. Whilst my Mum diligently completed her rehab so she could get home to my Dad, this lady was totally accepting of her decision to enter a facility to assist her in her aging process.

She explained to me that she was ready to enter the next phase of her life and all that it would bring; she was happy with the staff and the facility fitted with her religious beliefs. I could see she was comforted by the way the facility was run and how it met all of her psycho-social and religious requirements. She was ready to go and I was genuinely happy for her.

The funny thing about hospitals is that you tend to have a lot of time on your hands when you're pacing the hallway and waiting for someone you love to recover. So this got me thinking about growing old and gay. Where do people from the GLBTIQ community go when they need supported care in their advancing years? What are our options?

Sadly, there still exists a strong degree of discrimination in health services, particularly those that are run by religious denominations. Whilst the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013 produced reforms that prohibit religious organisations in receipt of government funding from discriminating against GLBTIQ individuals, it is unclear if GLBTIQ people are accessing these services.

The bigger issue of wider reform in an outdated system is in fact a more prevalent problem.

So what does this mean for GLBTIQ Australians? Where do we go in the event that we need aged care services in our later years given that none currently exist?

In November 2012, the Commonwealth Government released the National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Ageing and Aged Care Strategy, which seeks to break down the major barriers to GLBTIQ people accessing appropriate aged care services.

This Strategy offers six main goals in improving access to aged services for the GLBTIQ community which are:

1. LGBTI people will experience equitable access to appropriate ageing and aged care services;

2. The aged care and LGBTI sectors will be supported and resourced to proactively address the needs of older LGBTI people;

3. Ageing and aged-care services will be supported to deliver LGBTI-inclusive services;

4. LGBTI-inclusive ageing and aged care services will be delivered by a skilled and competent paid and volunteer workforce;

5. LGBTI communities, including older LGBTI people, will be actively engaged in the planning, delivery and evaluation of ageing and aged-care policies, programs and services; and

6. LGBTI people, their families and carers will be a priority for ageing and aged care research.

Whilst these goals are broadly focused on ensuring services for GLBTIQ people are improved, there are still some significant barriers to services responding appropriately. This is because there is a broader belief that our community's needs are considered 'special' and therefore needing something additional in terms of care that is typically viewed as a burden to services. It's almost as though services think that we will need extra care; care that they can't provide simply because we don't identify as heterosexual.

The reality is that we all tend to grow old in the same way; GLBTIQ people are not any different in this respect. What is different is the family of people and support we surround ourselves with. It's true, we are different in this respect and it's this difference that's often the initial source of discomfort in treatment providers when presented with someone from the GLBTIQ community. Consequently this disrupts our rights in accessing care.

I'd suggest that GLTBIQ needs are not 'special' in this respect and it is the use of this word that confuses the language around the provision of services to our community. 'Special' is a polite/convenient way of refusing service based on a subtext which loosely translates to 'we're uncomfortable with this person'.

It's a noble intention that the National Strategy seeks to educate service providers in offering sensitivity training and inclusion. But, surely, if services don't provide care they are funded for then they should lose their funding. Yes?

Sadly, no. These services continue to operate and refuse service to the GLBTIQ community and I think I'm not alone in questioning why this is still happening. It's going to continue to happen until the elephant in the room is addressed. The elephant is that GLBTIQ Australians are not seen as equal, which means we matter less.

Most of the problems our community experiences in accessing services in one form or another all return to this one issue: we are not equal. Being 'less than' in Australia leads to problems with mental health, isolation and a sense of failing to be part of a more global community.

Aged Care might be the end point for some of us but it's also the starting point for a new conversation for all GLBTIQ Australians. The Australian Government needs to address this issue as a matter of priority, because in some cases, lives are literally depending on it.

*Name has been changed

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that religions organisations continue to receive an exemption that allows them to discriminate against anyone that doesn't fit with their religious beliefs. The Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013 Reforms prohibited discrimination by religious aged care service providers against LGBT people accessing those services where those services accept Commonwealth Government Funding. The piece has been updated to reflect that change.