The study of the health needs of older women experiencing homelessness

A few years ago, a colleague told Gloria Sutherland that she should do her PhD.

Gloria quickly shot the advice down, saying she thought she was “too old”. There was mirth in this conversation, but inevitably, age was not a barrier and now “70-something”, Gloria is the proud owner of a bright blue bound book containing years’ worth of important work on the health needs of older homeless women in Perth.

The Thesis

Titled, Study of the Health Needs of Older Women Experiencing Homelessness in the Perth Metropolitan Area, the PhD addresses older women’s health, an area nobody has looked at extensively, particularly in older homeless women. Gloria is hoping her findings will influence policy and ultimately help older women who are experiencing homelessness due to a range of complex reasons.

Gloria found the research challenging but rewarding, meeting some wonderful people along the way. “I discovered there are some fantastic people working in the homelessness sector and homeless health sector. I have to acknowledge the invaluable input of the women with lived experience of homelessness who so generously and willingly shared their stories and their suggestions for helping other women who may find themselves in a similar situation.”

The thesis was originally instigated by a report published by the Council of the Ageing (COTAWA) in 2014. Security of tenure for the ageing population in Western Australia looked at the increasing needs of older homeless women and considers whether current housing legislation supports seniors’ on-going housing needs.

Health Issues

It was an eye opener for Gloria, alerting her to the potential of there being greater health issues at play. It highlighted that women over 50 comprised the fastest growing group of the homeless population in WA.

She felt compelled to investigate the issue further and write a contemporary PhD with evidence-based research. And with her background in population and women’s health, she was well-placed to do so. Gloria’s roles have included Program Manager of the WA Cervical Cancer Screening Program, Population Health Director (WA Country Health Services) for the Kimberley Region, coordinating the roll-out of the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program in WA and several Policy Adviser roles in the WA Department of Health.

Evidence-Based Approach

The evidence-based approach was a no-brainer for Gloria.

“If you want to influence policy you need evidence.”

“If you want to influence policy you need evidence,” she explained. “I have seen this happen in practice and if you want to develop or influence policy then you need evidence. You can jump up and down and advocate until you are blue in the face, but the reality is that you need documented evidence to drive government policy, support and drive change and ultimately improve service delivery.”

Interviewees included women aged from 49 to 82, from a range of different environments. And from the many interviews Gloria conducted, a repeated theme was the need for safe and secure accommodation.

Accommodation

“They wanted to feel safe and they felt that accommodation was their main health need,” Gloria said. “I also found the women had high and often complex health needs. Being older and becoming homeless, they’d all gone through some major trauma, including the factors that had made them homeless in the first place. So, finding and providing a roof over their heads is the most important thing you can do, together with ongoing health and social support.

“This is what the thesis essentially says.”

Homeless and Healthcare Providers

The work did not simply end with interviewing older homeless women.

“I interviewed people who managed homeless sectors who were experts in their field, and who had worked with homeless women. I also interviewed healthcare providers including nurses, doctors and psychologists.”

Gloria found similarities and great insights across the interviews.

“What the homeless and healthcare providers were saying confirmed the women’s stories but also broadened what they were saying from their wider experience with other homeless women who were not part of my study.  Basically, everyone was on the same page, so the thesis presents a prevailing view.”

“This combined view is that secure and long-term housing and ongoing support is fundamental to addressing the health needs of older homeless women.”

This combined view is that secure and long-term housing and ongoing support is fundamental to addressing the health needs of older homeless women. Although many reading this article might think this conclusion is a well-known solution it is important to reiterate the importance of reaching this conclusion from an evidence-based approach.

Publishing

Now completed, Gloria is aiming to publish articles linking to the research, hoping they reach a broad audience.

“Researching and writing the thesis has been one of the toughest job I’ve ever had. I’ve discovered the importance of tenacity and supportive supervisors. There is a lot of work needed to complete a PhD, but I’ve done it and hopefully it will make a difference.”