Growing Old, Sick and Latino in the South Without Papers

Growing Old, Sick and Latino in the South Without Papers

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First of two articles.

Photo: Leonila Flores had to knock more doors to obtain health services to treat her colorectal cancer. Photo provided courtesy of Flores family.

ATLANTA--As the years go by, it is more probable that an illness knocks at an older person’s door unexpectedly, not only hitting one’s health, but also a senior’s finances. A worst-case scenario comes when the elder lacks proper immigration status.

That happened to Antonio Dávalos, 63, an undocumented Mexican, who has a chronic renal disease, making him dependant on kidney dialysis treatments.

“Only God knows how many years he will let me live yet. It’s hard--there are no jobs. If I have an emergency and get sick, it’ll be harder”.

Dávalos was a truck driver, and more than 20 years ago his health began to get deteriorate. But he never got health treatment, even though the doctors told him that he needed dialysis in order to live.

Fighting to Survive

Only four years ago he started his treatment at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, one of the largest public medical centers in the United States. But, that institution closed its dialysis clinic two years ago.

After a legal battle with Dávalos and 21 other undocumented patients, Grady was required to provide them health treatment, at least until September 2014. Because of their immigration status, Dávalos and the others don’t have access to public health services as Medicaid or Medicare, so they must cover costs of treatments and medications out of pocket.

Like Dávalos, many undocumented elders fight to survive, according to Dorothy Leone-Glasser, president of Advocates for Responsible Care.

“As people get older, it is much harder for them to understand what doctors are telling them. It’s harder for them to get to the resources they need in order to stay as well as they can and in order to get the care they need--particularly these undocumented patients,” said Leone-Glasser.

The problem that this group confronts gets worse in the Southeastern United States, according to Leone-Glasser.

“Patients in the Northeast or on the West Coast generally do a little better. And I feel, as someone who originally comes from the Northeast, it is because we have a different perception about healthcare. We’re in the same country, but the views are so different,” she observed.

According to Leone-Glasser, in Georgia it is harder for those patients because of the rejection of undocumented people in the state. “In Georgia, they don’t feel it’s their responsibility to help these people. To me that is unbelievable because it is our responsibility to help others no matter their status is,” she added.

Not only health gets affected among undocumented seniors. According to Felipe Lobelo, epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, many families, such as Dávalos’, ended going into debt and become impoverished.

“Chronic illnesses takes people into poverty,” he said.

According to Kerstin Gerst, professor of gerontology at the University of Georgia, at Athens, “Older undocumented immigrants have the added problem of being ineligible for public benefits. Often a single health event, like a hospitalization, can result in major financial crisis for a family.”

That was the case of Leonila Flores, 63, an undocumented Mexican. In 2008, she was diagnosed with colorectal cancer, which made her exhaust her modest savings on tests and treatments.
“I spent all the money I saved and my children’s money. It was a lot of money, and we are still paying,” said Flores.

Knocking on Many Doors for Help

Later, Flores received health services from Grady Hospital even though it cost her great effort. She said that an undocumented patient has to knock on more doors than other patients, even to face discrimination in order to survive.

“If I only had my papers, I would not have suffered many things--the uncaring people, who do not consider you and tell you that you have no business being here and you should go back to your country,” said Flores.

But leaving Georgia is not that easy, said Leone-Glasser, who helped many renal patients at Grady to repatriate or move with the hopes of getting treatment.

“How are they going to do that,” she asked. “The only families they have are here with them in Georgia. Do you expect an entire family with children and all to go to another state, where they don’t have anybody? Besides, they will be in the same situation, they will have to go to the emergency room until they live in that state long enough to be able to get some care,” she said.

Leone-Glasser and her colleagues at Advocates for Responsible Care are trying to help undocumented ill people living in Georgia and also to change the negative perceptions regarding undocumented immigrants.

“We need to take care of each other. If we can go back in medicine to realizing that and to operating that way we wouldn’t have this problem. We need to learn to put all of those differences aside to embrace each other’s cultural differences and learn from it. We are never going to be the nation that we want to be until we understand that principle,” commented the doctor.

Johanes Roselló wrote this article as part of the MetLife Foundation Journalists on Aging Fellowship, a project of the Gerontological Society of America and New America Media.