Elder Issues & the LGBTIQA+ Community: Joe Ball, Switchboard & Jessica Stott, WIRE – Podcast Episode 11

In this podcast Rebecca Dahl and Sally Nicholes of Nicholes Family Lawyers speak with Joe Ball, CEO of Switchboard and Jessica Stott, acting CEO of WIRE (Women’s Information Referral Exchange) about Elder Issues in the LGBTIQA+ community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Switchboard is a non-for-profit organisation providing support services to the LGBTIQA+ community in Victoria, including it’s ‘Out & About’ social home visiting service for LGBTIQA+ Victorians at risk of social isolation and it’s various telephone and web-based counselling and referral services.

WIRE is a non-for-profit information and referral service for women, non-binary and gender diverse people in Victoria.

Our speakers talk about how their services are helping LGBTIQA+ Victorians during social isolation and how allies can help!

 

Rebecca:

Welcome everyone to the Nicholes Family Lawyers podcast.  I’m Bec Dahl and I’m a partner at Nicholes Family Lawyers.  I’m joined by Sally Nicholes, our managing partner.  Today we are speaking with Joe Ball and Jessica Stott.  Joe is the CEO of Switchboard Victoria, which is a community-based not-for-profit organisation which provides support services to the LGBTIQA+ community, and their friends, families and allies in Victoria. Some examples of Switchboard’s programs include Out and About, a social home-visiting service for LGBTIQA+ Victorians at risk of social isolation. Switchboard is also the Victorian partner in the national telephone and web counselling information and referral service, QLife   In addition, they run an after-hours telephone support service called With Respect, providing support, information and counselling in relation to family and intimate partner violence.

Our second guest, Jessica Stott, is a service delivery manager at WIRE, the Women’s Information and Referral Exchange.  WIRE is a not-for-profit organisation providing information, support and referral services to women, non-binary and gender-diverse people in Victoria.  Their service offering is very broad including clinics and programs relating to family law, financial literacy and job-coaching.

Welcome, Joe and Jessica, it is great to have you on our podcast today. Joe, I’ll start with you.  I probably did a terrible job of introducing Switchboard during my intro, but I’d love you to tell us a bit about Switchboard, its history and the programs it offers to the LBGTIQA+ community.

Joe:

With pleasure.  Switchboard is a 29-year-old service starting in 1991.  One thing that has been in the forefront of my mind recently is that we are a service born of an epidemic, born of a virus, the HIV AIDS virus, and that was the period when we came out of, and during the early days a lot of the volunteers which we had were people that had themselves got HIV AIDS. Over the years, I’ve looked back at the old newsletters, and month by month, there were always obituaries in the newsletters of volunteers who had died.  At this time, we are very cognisant of what an epidemic means, what stigmatisation means, and we very much have it in our blood to respond to an epidemic. That is part of our history – 29 years on, we started as a telephone service and we now run two different telephone lines.  One is a family violence service for the LGBTIQ communities and the other is the Victorian partner in the national QLife service.

We also run a service for elders as well as a suicide prevention program and a queer and trans inter-sex people of colour project, which is about tackling racism in our community and addressing the needs of people of colour in our LGBTIQA+ community. What makes us unique is that we are a community-controlled organisation which means that as well as being an LGBTI specialist organisation, everyone who works and volunteers in the organisation identifies as part of this community.

So it is our health in our hands, we are community-controlled which is very important.  It is about empowerment and self-determination around health outcomes.

Sally:

Joe, when you talk about the stigma 29 years ago and the effect of the AIDS epidemic, I remember at that time, some of the pain and the awful homophobia in the community at that time. I think this is a very good time for the community as a whole that there must be certain specific mental health issues that are really prevalent that you are seeing at the moment, for the LGBTIQ+ community. Could you share that with us and what Swithboard is doing to address those issues?

Joe:

Obviously, it is a very re-traumatising experience for people who lived through HIV, so there is that for the predominantly-older gay male population, obviously it is not limited to them, but predominantly, and for them it brings back a flood of terrible memories, terrible injustices, unlike now. During HIV, people did not have the public health response that we have now to COVID-19 and a lot of people were left on their own, deserted by family and the public health system to cope with a virus.  So there is that – the re-traumatisation.  Around family violence, with the mass unemployment that is taking place at the moment, our community is over-represented in some of the industries that have been decimated by COVID, in particular the Arts and the Hospitality industries, industries in which LGBTIQ+ people are over-represented in, so there is this increase in unemployment in our community and we have seen that  a lot of people have had to pack up their share houses, which are actually for people more than their share houses, they are actually their chosen family.  They have had to return to family of origin.  There is an assumption that family of origin is an open door for people but in our community family of origin often comes with a lot of compromise, such as they cannot express their gender or sexuality or you cannot return to that house with your partner, or presenting your gender and living your gender the way you want to live it.

There is a lot of pressure around families in our community at the moment.  Add to this, social isolation – across the board, everyone is facing social isolation but if you already have poor mental health outcomes, social isolation compounds that and in our LGBTIQ+ communities we already have a tragically over-representation community of people who suicide or live with chronic suicidality, and when you are working with suicide one of the things you want to do is to keep people safe for now within a COVID-19 context. This is a complex mental health terrain to work in, because people cannot necessarily do all the things, enact their mental health safety plan, they have to re-write this and the things that might have been keeping them safe, they don’t have as much access to, like community groups or face-to-face service provision or that kind of thing.

There is a bit of a cluster of issues there.  However, I do want to say one thing as I summarise all of these issues: there is so much resilience in our community because we are used to tackling issues.  Community for us is not always the community you find in your nearest proximity.  A lot of people in our community are used to going online and looking for community there and across state borders and across national borders so in some ways there is actually a lot of capacity in our community to respond and I think our community responded very quickly and set up a lot of online groups. Of course, we have our own radio station in which there is a lot of capacity as well.  So there is good and bad.

Sally:

Joe, what can allies do and what can the community do to support the most vulnerable at this time?

Joe:

I think it is a reiteration of things that allies already know. It’s making people aware that your services are accessible to the LGBTIA+ community, letting people know that your services are still open. That has been a really big challenge for us, to get out to people that things have changed in our service delivery, for example we cannot physically visit people in aged care facilities or in their own homes, but we are virtually visiting, so that is something that people can do.  I think if people want to transform the ways they show –  we always used to wear our Rainbow lanyons, you can still wear your Rainbow lanyons at home, if you are talking to people or giving talks, you can still represent yourself in that way.  I think it would be great for people to share our services; make sure that our referral pathways are on your websites and that you are including us on the list.  I’ve noticed this time that a lot of people have reverted to what I call the big guys in the mental health sector and they list people who may be doing great work, like Lifeline and Beyond Blue but maybe they drop off some of the other services, like WIRE, like PANDA, like ARCVIC and like us at Switchboard, and just thinking, it is not one size fits all when it comes to mental health so just remember when you are thinking about sharing InfoGraphics, just remembering to add on all those other services.

People in our LGBTIQ community don’t always have a great experience on Lifeline and Beyond Blue because we are a specialist service and it’s good to create all the options. People in our community use these services all the time. So during this time, it’s important not to diminish choice when there is no need to.  And of course, where people can raise up our services, that is really important in all sorts of ways…giving a shout-out about what we are doing today, including us, lifting us up and of course, donations.  It is a hard time to ask for donations – we have definitely seen, as with most organisations, a plummeting in donations. At Switchboard Victoria we know that donations predominantly come from our own community, not so much from people outside our community, it’s very much our community, and when you go back to that initial point I said, about people losing their employment at this time, that flows through to donations, people who are regular donors not being able to make those contributions.  So I guess it is about people just keeping us in the frame at this time. When calls are made about donations to Beyond Blue, well they have had some significant Federal Government contributions which they richly deserve, but don’t forget about the small providers who are doing really heavy lifting at this time.

Rebecca:

Thanks Joe. One thing I wanted to ask you about, and you touched on this before when you spoke about changing some of your services, one of the programs which I just loved when I heard about it was your Out and About program, so I wonder whether you could tell us something about that and how you have adapted it during COVID-19?

Joe:

It’s a service close to my heart, too. It’s a service for elders, though we also support people with disabilities.  So although it is an older persons service, but we do not turn anyone away, so we have people in their 50s and beyond.  So one of the things about Out and About is that we still intaking people, and we want to get that message out, I pushed that out on our social media, it’s an important message because we are absolutely still doing intakes, so people should refer people to our services. What we would normally do is to match a volunteer with an older person, or an LGBTIQ person with a disability in their home or in an aged care facility, and then they would then visit in person, which is a beautiful service and we do this throughout Victoria and we match volunteers who live in the same kind of location but we visit people across Victoria.

During this time we obviously cannot have volunteers going into our aged care facilities at this point; our older community are particularly at risk so we stopped visits about 6 weeks ago in aged care facilities. But we have been doing everything else, the virtual visiting and even some of our volunteers and even some of our staff members have contacted people more than ever.  One of the things we have found is that you cannot just replace a physical visit with a phone-call, it’s not the same.  So we’ve had to really visualise – instead of someone being visited once a week, they have been called numerous times each week to be checked in on.

So we have been trying to do Skype and all the different devices where we can, call them, letter-writing, the challenges have been huge in this area; I think there are a lot of assumptions about how older people live, and there are technology challenges, and there are also poverty challenges.  Not everyone has a mobile phone and we often forget that and where some people are living in communal aged-care facilities, they are sharing communal phones so we have been trying to get devices to people, train them in these devices, and in addition to that challenge (for which we have had no additional funds but have had some fantastic donations), we have also sent out care packages to every single person using our service, because we know that people really need to receive something from us, because this is a very scary time.

One third of the people we support have dementia and a lot of our older people have been very scared about what it means when they have been told by the people physically closest to them in aged care facilities that they cannot go outside because this seems a lot like abuse.  The role we have played with these older people is to convey to them that there is a virus going around so they do need to stay in and they need to listen to that advice.  Often it is important about where this messaging is coming from – the messenger can be just as important as the message, so we have played that role for our older people, keeping them up-to-date, in touch through the care packages we have been sending, through letters and for those who can get emails, we send them to say that actually there is something going on, you do need to follow these health warnings and stay safe at this time.

Rebecca:

Thanks, Joe, that’s great particularly to hear that your services are still helping older people who are isolated.  Jess, how are things at WIRE? What are your observations of the sort of support that older people have been looking for at WIRE at the moment.

Jessica:

As Joe has been pointing out, there is an increasing need for social connection and that goes for all callers to WIRE but particularly for older people as during COVID restrictions, they are quite likely not to have as many people to visit them.  As well, the feeling of uncertainty and living in such a period of unknowns is incredibly stressful for people, we have noticed that it is a really significant additional pressure.  I think for a lot of people, they are already living in situations where they are under pressure particularly with their mental health. The introduction of so much uncertainty and lack of access to the usual things that support them can be quite unbearable for people and we have noticed an increase in suicidality as well, and a sense of desperation and not knowing what to do next.

Rebecca:

Jess, Joe has spoken about how Swithboard has changed their Out and About program to make sure that people are still getting that service, I know that at WIRE you have done some similar things with your programs as well.

Jessica:

At WIRE we have a program called the Omega program which is a luncheon activities club for women, non-binary and gender diverse people who are experiencing either housing insecurity or social isolation, or both.  Usually they meet up face-to-face, go on excursions together and have lunch together but during this period of social distancing, we have been providing the program as a social connections phone calls twice a week. If people are interested in this, they are very welcome to contact WIRE on the phone support line which is 1300 134 130 and say that they would like to find out about the Omega program and they could receive a phone call from a support worker once or twice a week, to help bring them back to feeling more socially connected.  Also as part of this program, we are exploring food delivery options;  usually it is a lunch program and places like Lentil As Anything who are offering delivery of food, so we are hoping to be able to continue with some of the lunch part of the program as well.

Rebecca:

It’s good to hear about how services like WIRE and Switchboard are adjusting to be able to keep providing that support.  Have you seen any increase in older people and the challenges they face in family violence?

Jessica:

I think there are definitely added pressures. There’s a real sense that the options to get away are not the same at the moment.  I think that elder abuse is a really interesting form of abuse in that it doesn’t fit the model of family violence that we would expect and that can make it less visible.  It is often not in an intimate partnership and often with other family relationships.  We see a lot of elder abuse which is coming from adult children perpetrated to the elderly parent. So it breaks down the hetero-normative stereotypes of family violence as well.  In addition we have seen examples recently of elderly people being abused and harassed and stalked by people in their own neighbourhood, and this is difficult as it is a time when we don’t have a lot of places to go, so we are finding that we are all going down to the same local park and if there is someone there from your street who is harassing you, or you think they might be there, that takes away that safe option of getting out, exercising and having a change of scenery. These are weird and wonderful variations of abuse and violence that are happening at this time.

Sally:

Joe, what type of abuse have you been seeing  in terms of this strange time?

Joe:

One of the things we have been cognisant of, the role we often play in our visiting program is often an eyes-on to abuse and that is something we haven’t been able to do. And it is something that I really feel passionate about – there’s always a neo-liberal pressure on about doing these kinds of visits over the phone meaning that it is often cheaper.  But I’ve always fought to have our services face-to-face because so much is picked up that way, just that going into someone’s house and seeing are they coping. One of the things we do pick up is elder abuse just by being around.  And definitely abuse in care, we have picked up by actually going in and doing visits.  So something that is cognisant to me is that we don’t have that eyes-on at the moment and I think that there will be lots of unpacking after this about what people have gone through and we’ve not been able to intervene on.  One of the things we have found is that our older trans community have not had access to the clothes that they want to wear, money not being released to them through either family or guardianship, to buy the particular gender clothes that they want to wear- that is something we’ve been able to pick up when we go to see people in their houses and why are they in their pajamas all day? Because they actually don’t have clothes to wear. That’s an actual live case that we experienced.

The other thing we have noticed is that a lot of people across our community but definitely in our trans and gender-diverse community and in our older community are quite scared to go out. There have been a number of cases of people in the aggravation in the supermarkets, often comes out in the form of bigotry. We know that is the case with racism, there have been numerous cases of people of Chinese ethnicity, who have been targeted by racism and members of our trans and gender-diverse community have been targeted by people’s aggravations and frustrations in the stores.  So what we have had is that some of our older people are afraid to go out, afraid that they are going to be on the end of that aggression. That is a food scarcity issue, if people are not going out to buy their food so that they can eat, that is a real concern, let alone whether there is food on the shelves, if people don’t feel that they can go out to do the purchasing of food, that is a real worry. And that is compounded by people in our trans and gender-diverse community concerned about accessing things like Woolworths online or food delivery because they are concerned about again that will be more strangers, more people I don’t know, finding out where I live and coming into my home.  So there is a lot of anxiety and fear and there have been a number of cases of people being dobbed in for being outside their house. Sometimes dobbing in to the police, sometimes people use that as a kind of vindictive approach. The older trans woman on your street, already, because you have some bigoted opinions – we are hearing reports of people dobbing in other people that they don’t like, to the police for leaving their house. It is awful that people are doing that as it is making our older people so concerned and so worried about being out there.  And this is within a population who are historically scared of the police so again it is the re-traumatising, people experiencing again that effect of being targeted.

Rebecca:

I want to ask both of you: if I was concerned about an older person in my life or in my community, what would you recommend that I do could do myself to access some help or assistance for them?

Joe:

If it is an older LGBTI person and they are socially isolated, I think it is really important to refer them to our Out and About program because once they are in this program we don’t just visit them, we offer them referrals and support and we offer a level of case management when they enter our service, in the sense that we are checking in on them and making sure that they have access and knowledge to our range of services, there’s a lot of warm referrals going on, for the LGBTIQA+ people, older people, if they fit the demographics of the Out and About program then I would say absolutely refer them in.   And also remind them that they can call our phone service as well, it’s not just our Out and About program, there are actually two different telephone services (our With Respect line and QLife) and they are open every single day.

Jessica:

Anyone concerned about someone in their community is welcome to call WIRE. The way we would regard those calls is that ultimately we would encourage the person themselves to call us so that we can really explore what’s happening for them and what their priorities are and what their options are. The model of support that we use is an empowerment model; it’s essential that it is centred on the person who’s needing help, but we would also support the person who is calling on behalf of the other person as well, recognising that supporting someone and being really concerned about someone can be a really heavy load, and we could explore options for them as well, to have ongoing support too.

So as WIRE supports women, non-binary and gender-diverse people, you could call on behalf of someone meeting that eligibility criteria, or if you need it yourself you can call on behalf of anyone else. So it is quite broad.

Rebecca:

Yes, so as Joe mentioned earlier, it might be that we are seeing things, you know when you have your eyes on someone, at the moment, we are more alert to what is going on with neighbours and community; it is good to know that we have options like WIRE and Switchboard, if people do need that support.

Jessica:

And we really look to hear what is happening from people in their own words.  I really relate to what you are saying, Joe, about not being able to see what’s happening to  someone can really limit their access to support, and a lot of abuse could become quite invisible.  Just being able to unpack with someone and recognising that older people might have different language around violence; they might not use the word ‘violence’, they might not even use the word ‘abuse’ but if they are using the word ‘scared’ or ‘uncomfortable’ we can unpack those words, the model of understanding people’s stories from their own perspective becomes incredibly important at this time.  Like you, Joe, I have just noticed the incredible resilience and resourcefulness of the people that we have been speaking to, people who have been marginalised and have had to think outside-the-box in terms of keeping themselves safe and how to access support; that is really showing up at the moment and it is really impressive. One of the things we have noticed lots of at the moment is the gratitude people have about being listened to, and feeling that their story and their situation has really been heard and understood.

Sally:

One of the things I was recounting the other day was the Elder Abuse panel, which you were both involved with and I remember Julie Kun who is the CEO of WIRE was facilitating and Joe was speaking at quite passionately about elder abuse last year, and we had one of the community police speaking about specialist training that was going on, training for elder abuse, and they were training people to go into people’s homes, training that was centred on the fact that there will often be a carer present when the police were there, a person who could be the perpetrator, and police were being trained to look for signs, indirect signs of this because the carer present might actually be the perpetrator; so this is another layer of difficulty, but important to mention that there are now specialist groups being trained  within the police force. At the end of this podcast, we will provide links to online policing and specialist branches as well as Switchboard and WIRE. Listeners will be able to go to these links, it is important that police are attempting to develop this specialist training when they do actually go out to those sort of calls.

Joe:

I’ve been engaged with the police regarding their training module identifying LGBTIQA+ family violence, because I guess, and I took on board what you were saying, Jessica, that you really need to listen to what people are saying because they don’t always have the words for family violence, and that is definitely the case in our community. The mainstream story in this matter of family violence is men’s violence against women, but in our community, though this is sometimes the case, it is often not, there’s a real story: two lesbians may not recognise it but they may be in a family violent situation; one may be the victim and the other the perpetrator and we also see gender stereotypes play out in our community in the sense that the perpetrator is often recognised as the more masculine person, though that is not always the case, and I think that is the overlay of the mainstream story about men’s violence against women, which is really important but also the violence in our community and our community makes up 15-20% of the population and we have another story to tell about family violence. This story is about power and control; it is a very similar story but it’s a different gendered story. I have had those conversations with many feminist organisations and I think that a lot or organisations, WIRE in particular, is looking into this and is across it. But I think that more and more feminist organisations are starting to engage with what LGBTIQA+ family violence looks like. I think this is very important.  A component of this is for the trans-gender-averse people within the family violence circumstances.  A lot of the time we have felt that how people are treated as trans-gender is something that we might deserve or have asked for by being the identities that we are. We are starting to come out of this and say: we deserve not to be the victims of abuse, just because you are somebody who was assigned male at birth and when you go out into the world, you wear women’s clothing, because you are a woman, that doesn’t mean that you should be bashed in the street.  We need to change this huge story about not only violence in the street, but also in intimate partner relationships where people are bashed as well in those circumstances.

So that’s another thing about elder abuse, it plays into it, and older LGBTI people also don’t deserve to be humiliated, abused by their children, just because their children might not agree with their gender or sexuality.  At any age, we deserve to live the lives and live the genders and sexualities that we are, without persecution and violence.

Jessica:

It is good to hear that the police are getting more training.  From a WIRE perspective, we would encourage anyone concerned about someone else to get them to call the service themselves before they explore any options about calling the police, because, as we are talking about, there can be discrimination that happens from the police as well and having police involved for many people will not be the safest option.

Rebecca:

Such good advice from both of you, and good to understand what options there are and what we can do to help some of the older people and others in our community who are struggling at the moment.

Sally:

I’ll never forget Joe commenting on one form of abuse, being the restraining, in order to give medication to some of the elderly transgender, and that was a heart-rending comment which you made, Joe, just the removal of medication and the impact that that would actually have on an elderly transgender person.  I think you might have said that one elderly transgender person had a heart attack as a result of the medication being taken away too early.

Joe:

Yes, I could have said that at that time.  The access to medication unfortunately remains a public debate and that’s terrible.  It’s not a public debate within medical circles, but it is still a political football.  However I absolutely welcome what Greg Hunt, the Health Minister, has said in just this last week, about not entering into an enquiry any more about transgender medication and hormone treatment and canning that enquiry.  I think with some of these public emergencies, like this pandemic which we are in at the moment, that we actually get to re-evaluate what are the real social ills – and here, they are of course the virus but then poverty and the consequences of the pandemic and poverty and family violence and these contributors.  Transgender people accessing hormones is not a public health emergency, and that is what this Minister has confirmed, that people have a right to be the people they want to be and that is just not a priority.  That political football has been kicked out of the park and hopefully will continue to be.

Sally:

And an enquiry which further stigmatises vulnerable people would be just cruel.

Joe:

Yes, and it just shows it for what it was; they were saying that this is an emergency about access to hormones and we need to review it, but when the impetus has gone for there to be a political football to do political scoring, when that impetus has gone, you realise that this was just a trumped-up enquiry that it was just to stigmatise people and pit people against each other and I welcome that so much because at the moment we need to be focusing on real public health concerns and real social policy solutions.

 

Disclaimer: Nicholes Family Lawyers intends the information provided in this podcast as general information only, please contact Nicholes Family lawyers if you require specific information and advise in relation to any family law matter.

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