‘Slottet’ (eng. ‘The Castle’), Denmark’s first and only LGBTI + nursing home, is celebrating its anniversary. After five years in rainbow colours, headmaster Henriette Højsteen is reminiscing on a weekday that is, most of all, outrageously ordinary.
By Liv Rossander
With a warm smile, a curly-haired woman steps out of Slottet’s impressive front door. She looks like someone who has smiled all her life, and in her curls, white stripes mix with darkness. She gestures towards a nearby park bench and sits down at one end.
No doubt, this is Henriette Højsteen’s home ground.
We are sitting in front of Slottet. A nursing home that, in addition to having an extraordinarily wonderful placement in a park in Nørrebro, is actually like most other nursing homes. Apart from the fact that it is Denmark’s only LGBTI+ nursing home, and purposefully works to ensure that LGBTI+ people are also an integral part of the nursing home community. For that same reason, it is nothing short of appropriate that the bench we are sitting on is painted in all the colours of the rainbow.
In a few days, Slottet can celebrate its fifth anniversary as an LGBTI+ nursing home, and even though the media coverage was massive when the nursing home reopened in 2015, it hasn’t affected their everyday lives, says Henriette Højsteen, who is Slottet’s daily supervisor.
Sniggered at ‘norm-critique’
“The LGBT profile has first and foremost given us the gift of a community of values,” she says.
“We have always reflected the diversity of the citizens of Copenhagen and Nørrebro, so we have had many different people here, but it has brought Slottet together.”
All employees have been on a course on what it means to have an LGBTI+ background when you are older; what times and major events the residents have lived through. Slottet is one of five profile nursing homes in the City of Copenhagen. The others, however, have somewhat different profiles – such as “food” or “music”.
To begin with, our reaction was, “Well, we accept everyone, why should we take a course on LGBT?” But when you come to the course, you become more aware that there are things you haven’t thought about because you are straight and part of the majority,” says Henriette Højsteen, who also says that it is actually the norm-critical approach that is paramount to their work with LGBTI+ individuals.
“We sniggered a bit at first – ‘norm criticism’ – but you have to be aware of the norms and the fact that you can’t impose them on other people. You have to wipe the board clean and welcome the person.”
There is a special focus on the way Henriette Højsteen talks about meeting people at eye level. There is no doubt that this work is important to her.
An elderly gentleman, Jørgen, once came up to Henriette and told her that whereas he had only felt tolerated elsewhere, he felt accepted at Slottet.
“It was something that really touched me,” says Henriette Højsteen, pausing the flow of stories and looking out into the garden. In her belt hangs a name tag with a rainbow on it.
“The artefacts help to remember to meet people at eye level,” she says, holding out the name tag. For that reason, there are also rainbows to be found almost everywhere at the Castle.
“They are reminders that there are many ways to live your life,” says Henriette Højsteen.
“You have some prejudices with you, you know. When the lesbian resident wants to drink tea with her contacts to get to know them, they think she is hitting on them. People with other sexualities are given some other motives,” she says and emphasizes the point by putting two fingers on my arm.
Unequal health put the lives of the LGBTI+ elderly at risk
One would think that Denmark’s only nursing home with an LGBTI+ profile would be densely populated by LGBTI+ people. At present, Henriette Højsteen counts three.
Due to Coronavirus, Slottet has not been able to take in new residents, so even though they have room for 110 residents, they currently only have 51. However, that is not the reason, says Henriette Højsteen – it is not unusual that they are but a handful of LGBTI+ people at Slottet.
“Well, if you estimate that about 10% of a cohort is LGBT, it actually fits very well. Already, only 10% of a cohort goes to a nursing home, so a lot of people manage on their own, ”she says.
Henriette Højsteen does not believe that the number of LGBTI+ people is important. The most important thing is that people here are guaranteed that they can be 100% themselves, and not “crawl back into the closet” when they come to a nursing home – a phenomenon that is otherwise well known in LGBTI+ circles.
“When you’re about to become a nursing home resident, there are many things that probably don’t work, and your gender identity is perhaps the last thing you care about. It still lives within you and is your whole story, ”she says about the phenomenon, and continues:
“But it is important to make people’s sexuality visible, even though you probably aren’t going to the bar every Friday. It’s less about living it out and more about accommodating it. When your story is told, you become more in touch with yourself and your life, and it is important to be able to, without having to hold back because the person you are telling it to looks sideways at you if you say “I love people of the same sex”.”
The fact that Slottet usually only has a handful of LGBTI+ residents, Henriette Højsteen ascribes to the fact that there are simply not many who get old enough to go to a nursing home.
In 2009, CASA (eng. Centre for Alternative Social Analysis) compiled a report on the challenges LGBTI + people face in life, including abuse, mental illness, and stigma. Challenges that result in a lower quality of life, and that they die earlier. That report was the basis for several associations going to the then Mayor of Health, Ninna Thomsen – and in 2015, the Palace opened.
Slottet currently has a resident who lives with the consequences of such life challenges.
“He has been fighting since he was 18 years old. He has not been accepted from home, and these things, they follow you your whole life, “says Henriette Højsteen with a solemn look on her face.
A community within the community
Henriette Højsteen has not experienced that LGBTI+ residents arrive without any family or community. While they may have other kinds of family units, many of them have stronger communities alongside. When you are part of a stigmatized group, you learn to stick together.
“I think maybe this extra and clearly accommodating community means the most to our LGBT residents, and then to us as employees because we have some values that we stand together for. But we all celebrate it. We have a party during Pride Week.”
“Oh no, there he goes again,” exclaims Henriette Højsteen, as an elderly gentleman is rolled to the ambulance, parked in front of the entrance. There’s something in her tone that reminds me of a schoolteacher – or mother.
“Hmm. It could be that he’ll be an outpatient, ”she mumbles, mostly to herself. Henriette Højsteen plans to get up from the rainbow bench and continue her day. Before she leaves, she again emphasizes that the fact that Slottet is not overflowing with LGBTI+ people isn’t an obstacle to the community she and the other employees want to create. The ability to meet all people with openness and curiosity is fortunately useful no matter what sexuality that person has.