We have just held our very first National Conference and performed an extract from Swags & Tails, a play that we created back in 2011/2012 from collaborations with 166 older women, carers and care staff. We have had a year of firsts, and this was the icing on the cake, because this conference inspired delegates to go back to their organisations and agitate for change, a change that would ensure the voices of older LGBT people are heard, listened and responded to. I felt extremely proud of the conference, proud of the staff team who worked tirelessly to make the event seem effortless. And proud that the voices of the women we worked with back in 2011 are still being heard. Swags & Tails has seen the company produce its first legacy project which was included in the delegate packs; a DVD and training tool using Swags& Tails as stimulus to explore the issue of Person Centred Care and older LGBT people. This legacy means we have been able to leave something behind so that others can continue to develop thoughts, it supports conversation and inspires change where change is needed.
As a lesbian I have a vested interest in making sure that this voice is heard, and I make no apologies about this, it’s important. It was clear from the conversations that we all know that things have changed for the good, but we still live in a world that is heterosexist and homophobic. Back in 2011/2012 when working on this particular storyline, which centres around an older butch lesbian who finds herself sitting in a skirt in a dementia unit, my focus was on getting this voice heard – but it felt like it was only yesterday that I really thought about how life might be for me and my loved ones should we need care. After the performance, and workshop, I was able to be a delegate, to hear the issues and relate it to my own life. It made me consider the harsh reality of the care system as it stands and what would happen if I was vulnerable and in need of care when I’m older and I come up against someone who wasn’t comfortable with my sexuality. Someone told a story of a lesbian who had a carer who showered her at arm’s length after she had come out to her carers.
Last year I had minor surgery for basal cell carcinoma skin cancer (so not life threatening but, as everyone knows, you hear the word cancer and you feel frightened and a bit vulnerable). It was a couple of months before my civil partnership to my partner of 21yrs so as the surgery was taking place I chatted about the day we were planning. And I felt something change, it felt tangible though you couldn’t pin point it to what, there was a shift, something you feel when someone isn’t totally comfortable with your sexuality. This can trigger your internalised homophobia, you feel slightly less and judged – you can also doubt yourself, think you’re imagining it, but when I met the surgeon again I still felt something had changed. I am a strong out lesbian, but homophobia can knock you especially when you are vulnerable. In the conference one of the speakers talked about how we have to risk assess every day about when it’s safe to come out, and that really struck a chord with me. In hindsight maybe it would’ve been easier not to have come out during surgery as then I wouldn’t have spent time worrying about what the surgeon was thinking other than making sure all the cancer was gone.
Right now I have a great network of friends, a loving family and I’m blessed with a partner, son and children that I love and who love me. I’m only 51, but what will my world look like when I’m 91? What will the NHS look like? Or will it have vanished like so many of our public services in relation to the care of some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
There was lots of talk about the need for training, but I wonder given the current funding climate how this is going to happen. How will care staff be able to attend training to raise awareness of the diversity of those in their care, how will they have time to develop and grow when they are busy trying to look after so many people, when they are paid the minimum wage and not paid for travel time between the homes they visit, when they are understaffed, when they have a million and one practical things to do. How will they find the time to sit with people, to hear their stories, to find out who the people they are caring for really are, how will any of this happen in this current climate? And I suppose the answer is that we have to try and make the world we want for ourselves and our children, and children’s children. This is our world, and I have to believe we can change it, otherwise it’s too scary. A friend of mine told me last night that if we continue to follow this Coalition programme, by 2020 our Welfare State will be smaller than in America*.
We need a care system that supports and develops the skills of care workers. We need those that have a vested interest in making the provision of care profitable to know that profit shouldn’t negate care. We all need to think about what world we want for ourselves and for future generations. I want one that is generous, caring and one that ensures that the basic human rights of all are recognised and valued. I want those that are vulnerable cared for, I want care staff to be valued, I want provision of care when it’s needed, and I want a society and world that doesn’t discriminate.
This conference gave me a lot of food for thought, and the evaluation gathered so far suggests that this was the same for all that attended the day. Changing the world, one play/one project/one conference at a time.
*As Taylor-Gooby and Stoker (2011) note, however, the Coalition programme “takes the country in a new direction, rolling back the state to a level of intervention below that in the United States – something which is unprecedented”’