Long-term care home unveils ‘Rainbow Wing’ for LGBTQ2 residents in Toronto

A long-term care facility operator unveiled a “Rainbow Wing” on Saturday at one of its downtown Toronto facilities to meet the need for a dedicated space for LGBTQ2 seniors.

Rekai Centers opened the 25-bed wing at its home on Wellesley Central Place. Residents, employees and local residents gathered to celebrate the opening.

Barbara Michalik, executive director of community and academic partnerships for the Rekai centers, said she believes the space is the first in North America dedicated to the LGBTQ2 senior community — which stands for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and two-spirit.”

“We have relatives who may not feel comfortable coming into a long-term care facility because of their gender or their preference in life, and it’s very important that we nurture that and nurture our community workers,” Michalik told CBC News on Saturday.

“We can’t just put a sticker on a door. We can’t just do one training in the month of June for pride. It’s continuous. It’s a sense of culture when you enter that house [and] safety. It’s really a constant reinforcement of the welcome.”

A new ‘Rainbow Wing’ was unveiled Saturday at the Rekai Center on Wellesley Central Place. (Submitted by The Rekai Centres)

Describing itself as a non-profit charitable organization, Rekai Centers opened more than 70 years ago and now operates two long-term care facilities in downtown Toronto: the Rekai Center on Sherbourne Place, home to 88 residents, and the Rekai Center on Wellesley Central Place, home to 150 residents.

Currently, the Wellesley facility has 15 members who identify as part of the LGBTQ2 community, with more than 20 percent of residents identifying as LGBTQ2 in both inner-city long-term care facilities.

‘Seniors often looked around’ during pride celebrations

Barry Van Buskirk, a resident of the Rekai Center on Sherbourne Place, said he was delighted to not only attend the grand opening, but also be able to take part in Pride.

“I find it very exciting. It is very reassuring and very loving,” said Van Buskirk.

“Seniors are often watched because they are considered too old to participate. I’ve been to many, many Pride parades because I just love people [and] I want to spread that love.”

Barbara Michalik, executive director of community and academic partnerships for the Rekai centers, said she believes the space is the first dedicated to the LGBTQ2 senior community in North America. (Talia Ricc/CBC)

In addition to the Wellesley Central Place wing, another Rainbow Wing will open in a new long-term care nursing home in Cherry Place, on Cherry and Front streets, which is expected to open in 2025.

Sue Graham-Nutter, CEO of the Rekai Centers, said the new wing has been a long time in the making.

“The Rainbow Wing’s launch is the culmination of more than a decade of work with the 2SLGBTQI+ community,” said Graham-Nutter.

“What makes us most proud and emotional are the hugs and tears that are shed from our residents, and families who simply say, ‘I belong, and I’m accepted here. Thank you.’ Everyone needs a home where they are safe and loved.”

‘They shouldn’t go back in the closet’

Sherwin Modeste, executive director of Pride Toronto, said he hopes to see more of these types of spaces in the future.

“Seniors are part of society, they have contributed, they have paid taxes and should be able to enjoy their lives,” Modeste says. “They shouldn’t be in the closet at their retirement age.”

Toronto Mayor John Tory attended the event to celebrate the grand opening. He said the wing will allow people to be themselves.

“We benefit from allowing people to be their authentic selves,” Tory said.

Barry Van Buskirk stands in a rainbow poncho, outside the Rekai Center on Wellesley Central Place, to celebrate the opening of the new ‘Rainbow Wing’ and Pride. (CBC)

Staff to provide ‘culturally competent’ care

In 2018, the Rekai Centers commissioned a market research firm to seek community input through surveys and focus groups. The research collected by the company was a key factor in the opening of the special wing.

That year, a survey was conducted of people 50 and older who identify as LGBTQ2. The survey found that 94 percent of respondents said they were in favor of opening up the space.

According to the nonprofit, projections show that in Toronto there are more than 65,000 people who identify as over-65s in the LGBTQ2 community. That number is expected to grow as the population ages, it notes.

The focus groups emphasized the need for culturally sensitive personnel who are allies or members of the community. They also stressed the need for a review of the admissions process to break down the systematic barriers that persist in health care.

Rekai Centers says the new wing will have staff who are “culturally competent” in providing care to residents, programming that meets residents’ needs, and a Gender Sexuality Alliance that will provide a platform for residents, families, staff and community partners.

Dozens of residents, employees and community members attended the unveiling, including Toronto Mayor John Tory and Marci Ien, Member of Parliament for the Toronto Center and Canada’s Minister of Women and Gender Equality and Youth. (Talia Ricci / CBC)

Michalik said staff should be properly trained to ensure residents feel safe in their homes.

“There is a sense of culture that the residents of the community need and feel, especially if they have dementia. There is an extra level of education that our staff needs,” she said.