Lydia Arnold reclines on her squashy, mustard-yellow armchair, tilts her bright pink trainers skyward, and begins to describe the moment she became the first resident of Britain’s first LGBT retirement community. It was just three months ago, in early December 2021.
She ascended the lift in the modern, bulbous, tower block on the banks of the Thames, walked down the corridor – past the unoccupied rooms – and arrived at the threshold of her new apartment.
“On the doorstep was a big white package with a rainbow ribbon,” says the 74-year-old. “I carried it in, and inside was a hamper and a mug.” On the mug was the motto of Tonic Housing, the organization behind this pioneering housing scheme: “How we live our lives out.” The double meaning – uncloseted, for the final chapter – wasn’t lost on Lydia.
“I was on my own. And I burst into tears, ”she says. Relief from the memory resurges. She begins to laugh. “I thought, ‘Wow. Fantastic. ‘”
It marked the end of a frightening year for Lydia. Her 16-year-old relationship broke down. “And then in May I was diagnosed with lung cancer,” she says. “They removed half my lung.” In the September, the retirement community officially opened, and by December she was in.
“The idea that I was the first was more than exciting,” says Lydia, pushing up her tinted glasses. She has short, white hair and the mischievous demeanor of a valuable dinner party guest. In the weeks after arriving, her appreciation of lei deepened. “I thought, ‘This is really quite special. To feel safe, to feel comfortable. It’s my little cocoon. ‘”
Before Lydia, no lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender pensioner in the UK had ever stepped into a housing scheme designed to look after them. Those who have moved into mainstream facilities for the elderly have often found themselves surrounded by the very attitudes they spent a lifetime trying to escape.
Over the last 20 years, studies into older LGBT people, conducted by Age UK, Stonewall, and Opening Doors London have captured a concerning picture. Not only are LGBT people much more likely to be single, have HIV, mental health problems, live alone, not have children, and not have support from their family, but also, they may go back in the closet in elderly care homes.
A Stonewall survey, albeit from 2011, found half do not come out to their care staff and two thirds believe care services will not understand them. In 2020, a follow-up by Opening Doors London, Tonic and Stonewall Housing found 12 per cent had experienced bigoted abuse in their current housing and over half (56 per cent) would prefer an LGBT specific provision.
Other countries, including Spain, Germany, and the USA, have tried to address this with different variations of LGBT elderly housing, but Britain has lagged behind – until now.
‘Safe for the rest of my life’
Tonic spans 19 apartments on the uppermost four floors of Bankhouse, a Norman Foster-designed block which already housed 11 lower floors of a mainstream retirement home. It’s a 10-minute walk from Vauxhall tube station. Residents in the LGBT floors can opt for one- or two-bedroom apartments, with on-site care options, and communal areas to mingle with the other LGBT residents – although everyone in the building can mix.
Regular events, such as a cinema club, are already in place, but there’s more planned: art classes, coffee mornings, drag shows, and on the roof, opportunities to grow herbs and vegetables.
The motto, as well as being on mugs, now greets you at the front entrance. Inside, the lobby resembles a swishy cocktail bar, with velvet couches and a pink neon “TONIC” sign against William Morris wallpaper.
Eleven stories up you reach the interlocking communal areas: a white minimalist-style bar enlivened by a somewhat ironic, deliberately self-knowing picture of Judy Garland; a modern living room with colorful cushions; and a cozy reading room.
“All my friends who’ve been round are incredibly envious,” says Lydia, looking across her kitchen-living room, with its wall-mounted spice rack, cherry blossom perched in the window, and sapphic pictures of women in ecstatic poses.
Sun beams in from her balcony. You can see half of London from up here. Below, vast railway lines bring people into Waterloo station from the so-called home counties – a trip that endless young gay people have made to escape. What does Lydia feel when she stands out here?
“A surge of excitement,” she says. “And when I walk out of the building in the morning, and I see the river in front of me, I go for a little wander along the embankment, and I just have this waaaaaahhhhhh! feeling. “
Lydia grew up around here in the 1950s, before gentrification sent house prices into orbit, and before the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967. It took until the 80s for her to realize who she was.
“I fell in love with a woman and realized why my earlier life had not been very successful,” she says, laughing. At the time, she was working as a probation officer and was happily out at work, but her parents’ reactions di lei were trickier.
“My mother never accepted that it wasn’t her fault that I was a lesbian,” she says. Lydia’s father of hers, John Arnold, was president of the Family Division of the High Court. “He was the first judge to grant custody to a lesbian mother in a divorce case,” she says. “I was extremely proud of him.” But when it came to his own daughter di lui?
“He never acknowledged my sexuality,” she says.
Forty years on, Lydia was newly single, facing her mortality, and contemplating a stark question – where to move for the final time? – when she stumbled upon Tonic Housing. She was still living in Marseille following the breakup di lei with her partner di lei.
“I was looking on the net one day, sort of fantasising. I tapped in ‘lesbian retirement accommodation in London’, and up popped Tonic, ”she says.
“I thought, ‘this is perfect, because there is going to come a point when I probably will need some help, and the idea of going into an old people’s home in France, where I was a lesbian, English, and living with all these heterosexual people who didn’t understand where the hell I was coming from? ‘ I thought, ‘I can’t face that.’ “
Lydia rang up and, “straight away I knew,” she says. “Knowing that if I moved into this place, I was safe for the rest of my life, in an atmosphere where I could be me. Where I didn’t have to pretend to be married or have children. Then I could be as I’ve always been: out and happy. “
She had questions, however. “I did wonder whether they would be more men than women, purely because men have more money than women,” she says. “But actually, that doesn’t necessarily bother me. It’s a community, but we are also independent. “
Currently, there are only a handful of residents who have moved in, and the other four are men, but Tonic is determined to ensure diversity on all fronts. Eventually, this retirement community will also welcome renters needing social housing, but currently part-ownership is the only option.
The need to have money – at least £ 133,750 for a 25 per cent share of a one-bedroom apartment – prompted some to criticise the scheme, particularly when the Mayor of London announced a £ 5.7m loan to Tonic Housing to enable the place to open. But Anna Kear, the CEO, wryly suggests that people be cautious about opining on such matters until they “actually understand how social housing works.”
Specifically, she explains, statute dictates “you can’t provide affordable rented housing without being a registered provider.”
This meant, “We had to get a property first, before we could even apply to the regulator. I’ve just spent the last six months doing the application. “
It has been a 20-year marathon to reach this point. The genesis of which was the experience of Geoff Pine, the former chairman of Tonic Housing, whose partner of 30 years, Jamie, suffered from a degenerative heart condition before he died.
“He needed support and they couldn’t find wheelchair-accessible, appropriate care,” says Kear. Instead, they enlisted a carer until eventually Pine discovered what was happening to Jamie because of his sexuality di lui. “The carer had been coming in and praying for his ‘condemned soul’ di lui at the end of the bed.”
The need was clear. The execution has been arduous. After joining in 2018, Kear, who has decades of experience in housing, had to deliver a rather awkward reality check to the board.
“I said, it’s going to cost about £ 50m to develop a scheme like this. And that’s very, very difficult. I don’t like to say the word impossible, but it’s close to it. ” Their faces, she says, fell. “But it was necessary to move forward.”
Investment followed, and the loan from the Mayor of London, which is repaid each time someone part-buys an apartment. All the existing carers in the building were then given specialist LGBT training to ensure no one has an experience like Geoff Pine’s partner.
“It’s a huge responsibility,” says Kear. “Part of the original vision was about being both a provider and an exemplar.” The hope is that many more facilities for older LGBT people follow.
‘A place we can live without fearing any prejudices’
For now, the first few residents continue to settle in. On my second visit, I knock on the door of another apartment and a trim, chatty, Malaysian-British man, Ong Chek Min, invites me in. He’s 73 and one half of the first couple at Tonic.
Min’s 80-year-old partner, Tim, sits in a wheelchair in the living room, with his carer Sam helping him with his lunch. Behind them sweeps a curved white mural of a forest; the bark of which is raised, creating shadows that lead you beyond the wall as if lost in Narnia. They’ve had a terrible two years.
“Tim had a stroke in February 2020,” says Min. By then the couple had been together for 40 years. “I came downstairs, and he was lying on his side of him. Being a nurse, I knew straight away. ” Min administered aspirin to stop any further clotting. “That saved him.” But their lives were never the same again.
“It affected his communication center,” says Min. “That was the last time I conversed with Tim as he was. I’ve lost him in a way. And I grieve all the time. It’s very hard. I try not to because I know that I have to look forward. ” His manner di lui is like many who care for their loved ones: practical, determined, trying to stay positive.
But as we begin to talk about their lovely new place, Min begins to cry. “Tim can’t share this,” he whispers, covering his face di lei as the grief streams out.
They met at the opera, in London’s Covent Garden, in 1980, shortly after Min arrived in Britain to become a nurse. “It was June, he was leaning against a lamppost outside the opera house. We caught each other’s eye, and just clicked. ” But it was the interval, so when the bell sounded for the second half they quickly scribbled their phone numbers on each other’s ticket. “I still have that ticket,” he says.
They built a life together, survived the Aids crisis – while losing numerous friends – and witnessed dramatic attitudinal shifts towards homosexuality. But during the pandemic, hate crime rates against LGBT people have soared, while many newspapers and broadcasters have begun attacking LGBT charities for supporting transgender people.
the was the only media organization allowed in since residents arrived.
In 40 years, I ask, have you ever held hands in public?
“No, we never show affection in public,” he says. “I try to avoid any chance of anyone abusing me.”
After retirement, they began to consider the future.
“We discussed how we wanted to end our life,” he says. “We thought it was a good idea if we can find a place that we can live without fearing any prejudices, and amongst people we feel comfortable with.”
But they couldn’t find anywhere. After Tim’s stroke, a friend suggested Tonic. “I was really happy,” says Min. “You don’t have to worry about someone yelling something unpleasant, especially with Tim being ill.” To be the first couple here is a bonus.
“I’m just very honored,” he says. He hopes that he’ll be able to take Tim to the opera one last time.
Until then, they’ve begun to meet other residents. The previous Saturday they went down to the communal area for an art workshop. “We were sitting there chatting away. It was very, very, nice, ”he says, smiling and looking out the window over the London skyline.
“It feels like home.”