Ensuring inclusivity when advising older adults

  • October 28, 2021
  • Hannah Zip

Author’s note: this post was inspired by a presentation delivered by the Queer Seniors of Saskatchewan, and a big thank you goes to that advocacy group for sharing their personal experiences and stories to raise awareness of senior queer issues. The term “queer” is used interchangeably with “LGBTQ2S+” for brevity purposes only.

Some of us might remember when gay marriage became legal in Canada in 2005, but how many remember when the Canadian Criminal Code was changed to decriminalize homosexuality in 1969? Or that “sexual orientation” (Bill C-250) was not added to the list of identifiable groups in the hate laws section of the Criminal Code of Canada until 2003? In fact, the Canadian Human Rights Act did not include “sexual orientation” as protected grounds against discrimination until 1996! If you didn’t live through any of those historic dates then you were certainly alive when legal and human rights protections were extended to include “transgender,” “transsexual,” and “gender identity or expression,” since that only happened in Canada in 2012 and 2017, and it wasn’t until 2019 that the World Health Organization removed “transgender” from the list of mental disorders. What if you lived through some, or all, of the above legislative and policy changes? What if this was your everyday environment because you were a member of the LGBTQ2S+ community? What if one of your older clients is a member of this marginalized community?

The older queer generations (defined as those over 50 years old) who have lived through government sanctioned abuse and hate crimes grew up in a world with socially acceptable homophobic language, humour and bullying. They grew up with the fear of losing their children, families, friends, income and future job opportunities if they were ever discovered to be queer. They grew up with open abuse, including violence. As a result of this, many older LGBTQ2S+ people have chosen to go back into the closet and hide their identities rather than face the uncertain responses of caregivers and service providers. They fought for their rights and now want to live quietly.

LGBTQ2S+ people over 50 have some very key differences from the younger generations, and it is important to understand this if we are to create an environment where our clients feel authentic and comfortable so that we can provide them excellent advice, solutions, and estate planning services. Some of the ways that LGBTQ2S+ seniors are unique from the younger queer generations include:

  • They are more likely to be isolated and have little family support. Many are not married and/or do not have any children that they can rely on to help them as they age. Therefore, they may now be forced to rely on those systems that have historically discriminated against them for support.
  • They are not necessarily “out” to people other than select family members and close friends, in sharp contrast to the “out and proud” LGBTQ2S+ youth.
  • Whereas younger generations have a high awareness of their rights, there is a massive information deficit for queer seniors. Many queer seniors are not aware that they have rights and there is no information to inform them of this. This information gap includes:
    • Wills and Estates;
    • Healthcare;
    • Family Law;
    • Long term and special care homes;
    • Tax Planning; and
    • Elder Abuse.
  • They have narrower definitions of sexual orientation and gender identity than the younger generations and may use different terms to describe themselves than are popular today.

Discrimination against older queer adults is prevalent even today because laws do not change attitudes. Currently, discrimination in housing, employment, legal and social services, and healthcare has real implications on the mental, physical and emotional well-being of LGTBQ2S+ older adults and they are more likely to be isolated, have smaller/older support networks, experience mental and physical illness, live in poverty and are less likely to reach out to services, such as financial and legal, that could help them, for fear of being discriminated against. Some queer seniors are nervous to hire house cleaners and may put away pictures and mementos to hide their queer identity from these strangers entering their homes.

Despite our progress in achieving equality, this older community fears for their safety. What can we do to change this?

  • We need to build trust with our clients and to do that we need some understanding of the differences that exist within the diverse communities we serve. We cannot assume that all LGBTQ2S+ people are the same, or that our older clients are telling us their sexual orientation and/or gender identity when we are doing their estate planning. One easy way to build an environment of trust and understanding is to display a rainbow in your office. It is a small signal of acceptance and safety.
  • Be conscious of the language that you use and challenge heteronormative assumptions. Do you use “husband/wife” or “spouse/partner”? Which words are on your intake forms? Do you automatically use the opposite gendered pronoun when asking about their spouse’s age, employment, citizenship, etc.? Language is powerful. Is your language showing an assumption that all people are straight?
  • When meeting with clients to prepare their estate plan, or administer another estate service, what assumptions are you making?
  • Ask about your client’s chosen family, not merely their biological one. Our older clients may not want to benefit their biological family in their Will but want to leave a gift to their chosen family instead.

We attend pride parades and wear shirts with rainbows on them, walk across roads with rainbow sidewalks, have friends or family who are openly queer, and watch TV shows and movies featuring LGBTQ2S+ characters and actors. It is too easy to think that the fight for equality is over and that LGBTQ2S+ issues are now mainstream, accepted and embraced by all. While it may appear that equal rights have been won and that discrimination is over, we must remember the unique experiences and needs of the older LGBTQ2S+ community. We need to be inclusive of all generations, build an environment of trust and continue to challenge our heteronormative assumptions. “The older queer community wants and deserves the very best financial and legal advice from those who understand their history and unique needs.” (Queer Seniors of Saskatchewan).

Hannah Zip is a lawyer in Saskatchewan and works for Scotiawealth advising clients on estate planning solutions. In her spare time Hannah is very involved in the CBA, both provincially and nationally. She is the past provincial chair for the CBA Wills, Estates and Elder Law for Saskatchewan and the past National chair for the CBA Wills, Estates and Trusts section. Hannah is also the current editor of BarNotes, the Saskatchewan CBA publication.