In plans shown exclusively to BuzzFeed News, an “unashamedly ambitious” project with an “iconic architectural design” for up to 150 residents is already in the development stages.
Tonic Housing, the organisation behind the venture, is currently seeking to secure a site, either in London or Brighton, to begin catering for the more-than-a-million LGBT people over the age of 50 in Britain.
Similar homes have already opened in Germany, Sweden, and the USA, and facilities in France and Spain are imminent, but there are as yet no residential provisions in the UK aimed at the LGBT market.
James Greenshields, one of the four directors of Tonic Housing, tells BuzzFeed News that the idea came to them as they began to consider their own futures.
“If you don’t have your own children, and if you have fractured family relationships, which is a possibility, then you would not have the support networks that many older people count on,” he says. “So I thought, ‘What would happen to me?’ And then, ‘Well, what is there in the UK?’ I was really taken aback that although there are organisations for older LGBT people, in terms of care homes there is nothing at all. It was a shock. The need and the demand is out there.”
Tonic Housing’s plans are “unashamedly ambitious”, Greenshields says, and the building itself, a specially designed new structure catering for LGBT residents inspired by the plans for the LGBT care home in Spain, is intended to be an “iconic, statement piece of architecture”.
“The Madrid one had a very large glass frontage,” Greenshields says, “and what’s appealing about that is that so often you can identify older people’s housing because it looks a bit dismal and frumpy. But the one in Madrid felt like they wanted the outside world to come in, and that’s important.” There will be no net curtains, he adds, unless residents want them in their own rooms.
As well as single or two-bedroom apartments (the latter providing space for for additional nursing care), there will be dining options, gardens, a fitness and business centre, and a range of entertainment spaces.
“We want there to be a sense of it being an LGBT community hub, regardless of age,” Greenshields says, “so it would be a space where people would come because there might be a film club, exhibitions, or activities that would appeal to the LGBT community.” Drag queens may also be on hand.
“In the Berlin one, they had a restaurant and bar with a cabaret corner and a stage, so we’d hope to engage residents while also making it of interest to the wider LGBT community, so people would come to see a good show.”
As a result, Greenshields says, people of different ages would visit, enabling residents to stay connected with younger people. To avoid the home being a “ghetto”, heterosexual older people would also be able to live there, but the balance would always be at least 51% LGBT.
Greenshields and his co-directors have visited some of the existing facilities for LGBT seniors around the world. But it was “the Berlin one”, Lebensort Vielfalt, which consists of 25 flats for LGBT people of all ages, that cemented their determination to turn their architectural and business plans into reality.
“There was one guy we spoke to called Peter Sibley, who was British,” says Greenshields. “His background was in the theatre; he was quite a flamboyant character, with painted nails, elaborate stories, and a stage name: Rita the Ruin.
“He was in his early seventies and with failing health. He also identified in himself a wider vulnerability, a fear of going into a mainstream home. The fear had driven him, I think, to some ill health because he was so nervous of what might happen. That was really revealing. He said if there was an equivalent in the UK he would come back. This was someone who was almost in exile.”
But most elderly LGBT people are not able to go to Berlin or Stockholm to live somewhere they feel comfortable. Many, instead, are in mainstream care homes where attitudes from not only other residents but staff can prove intolerable.
A recent study by Stonewall, the LGBT rights organisation, and YouGov found that a quarter of staff in health and social care have heard colleagues make offensive remarks about LGBT people in the last five years, while 10% (and in London, 22%) have heard colleagues say that gay people can be “cured”. Almost three-quarters of staff say they have received no training in how to respond to the specific needs of gay patients.
A study by Stonewall and YouGov from 2011 found that half of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people over the age of 55 would feel uncomfortable coming out in a mainstream care home, and 60% didn’t feel GPs, social services, and housing providers could meet their needs.
“When we’ve asked the management in many of the mainstream care homes we’ve visited how many LGBT residents they have, in several, the answer has come back, ‘None,’” says Greenshields. “Statistically, that’s just very, very unlikely, so what that indicates is people are going back in the closet. There’s something utterly tragic about individuals who may have been involved in winning greater freedoms then finding themselves having to hide who they are.”
Having secured initial funding for research and development, Greenshields hopes to have found by Christmas a joint venture partner, which could be an organisation that currently provides mainstream elderly care provision. Tonic Housing also plans to secure land for the project within nine months, and within a year to apply for planning permission for the building work to begin.
Tonic Housing is focusing its hunt for a location principally in London and the Brighton area – it has identified a possible plot just outside Brighton but is “open” to other regions. Greenshields hopes the home will be the first of many, a blueprint for similar schemes around the country that also influences “current mainstream provision”.
Tonic Housing also plans to provide domiciliary care specifically for the older LGBT demographic. This would allow LGBT-trained care workers to come to people’s homes, rather than having to move into a residential facility.
But initially, Tonic Housing’s prime focus is the care home. Greenshields sums up the spirit of the project in a slogan, perhaps, for both the elderly and for LGBT people: “We’re not going to hide away in a corner.”