Health Coverage Crucial to Latino Grandparent Caregivers
By Adolfo Flores, New America Media/ EL Nuevo Sol
June 5, 2011
liken health coverage for grandparent caregivers to oxygen masks in an
airplane. How can they look after the children when they’re not taking
care of themselves?
Yet, like so many grandparents, Maria Olvera, 51, neglected her health
because she was caught between job obligations and taking care of her
grandchildren, Richard, age two, and his sister, Jennifer, 10. Their
father was killed two years ago in a drive-by shooting, and their
mother was deported in 2010.
It got to the point where Olvera was beginning to lose her sight
because of her untreated diabetes.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 6.4 million grandparents were
living in households with grandchildren under age 18 in 2008, and 2.6
million of them had primary responsibility for parenting their
Health coverage is one of the challenges grandparents face when taking
on the parental role again, says Jaia Peterson Lent of Generations
United [www.gu.org], in Washington, D.C. Seeking medical coverage for
themselves and the children is crucial. And without the proper
information some families can lose out.
Illiterate, Undocumented and Afraid
“There’s always a challenge related to lack of information. Medicaid
usually always covers children,” Lent says. “But often times
grandparents aren’t aware of how to apply, what steps to take. Or
they’re not sure if they even qualify. I’ve heard of cases when older
adults use up their retirement savings.”
Olvera depends heavily on the Madison Healthy Start Family program at
Pasadena’s Madison Elementary School for guidance on how to get
Medicaid coverage for the kids, schedule medical appointments for her
and buy groceries.
The center does everything from helping families with food to taking
them to the hospital and going over letters they receive in the mail. A
majority of the parents are women.
“She was always very hesitant to seek help; we would have to go to her
home sometimes because she was afraid we would take the kids away,”
Mirsa Serrano, the Madison program’s coordinator, says of Olvera. “It’s
hard for her to move forward because she has so many issues besides
being illiterate and undocumented.”
Besides being diabetic, Olvera suffers from depression, stemming from
years of abuse at the hands of her former husband. Olvera says she’s
doing a better job of taking care of herself.
Still, 2010 was a difficult year for her, she says. Her brother died in
January and her Mom passed away in July.
“The past couple of months have been hard. Some days I couldn’t even
get out of bed. I don’t think I would’ve if it hadn’t been for the
kids,” Olvera says, looking at her grandson Richard as he toddled by.
The need for specified outreach to grandparents like Olvera is evident
in a brown file container she has brimming with victim’s rights
documents and information on how to get a federal U-Visa, as a survivor
of domestic abuse.
Yet, because she is unable to speak English--and more importantly,
scared and intimidated by the U.S. legal system--the papers have sat in
the file unused for years. Those resources that could’ve helped give
More Active, But Vulnerable
A 2009 study of ethnic grandparents raising their grandchildren, from
Washington University in St. Louis, found that grandparent caregivers
have a more active lifestyle, healthier meals and enhance their sense
of purpose through the task of raising these children.
However, the same inquiry found compounding evidence that grandparent
caregivers were more likely to be dissatisfied with their health. They
also tend to have chronic diseases, such as diabetes and higher rates
of depression than caregivers who look after their spouses or
Latino caregivers were much less healthy than their non-caregiving
counterparts, says Esme Fuller-Thomson and Sandra Rotman of the
University of Toronto, leading researchers on issues facing
“They were worse off, they had fewer financial resources, [and were]
poorer,” Fuller-Thomson says, “when they’re the ones that should have
more resources--it’s illogical.”
In general, she says, grandparents who step forward are especially
vulnerable. The task of raising a child can accelerate their health
decline or make them more aware of their health limitations.
Fuller-Thomson’s 2007 study with the University of California,
Berkeley’s Meredith Minkler, “Mexican American Grandparents Raising
Grandchildren” found that one in 20 Mexican Americans ages 45 or older
are raising a grandchild.
In spite of being among the most impoverished individuals,
Fuller-Thomson notes, very few use public assistance programs, such as
food stamps. Numbers for Central Americans were similar. Even though a
quarter of these grandparents lived below the poverty line, only one
percent accessed social assistance.
Stymied By Language, System
“The use of services is so low, even if the grandmother is here legally
she may still be frightened of using services,” Fuller-Thomson says.
“There is an extra need to reach out to this group of caregivers.”
Besides issues of legal status, language barriers and unfamiliarity in
navigating the system may stymie their efforts. Removing these
obstacles by conducting outreach is crucial, she says.
“Grandparent caregivers are the first line of defense for Americas most
vulnerable kids,” Fuller-Thomson says. “Anything we can do to
facilitate the well-being of grandparents and give them stability makes
sense,” she says, adding, “Many who are doing it suffer from severe
health problems and poverty.”
The 2010 U.S. Census figures show that Latinos now constitute more than
one-third of California’s population (37.6 percent,), notes Catherine
Goodman, a retired professor from California State University, Long
Beach who has done extensive research on grandparent caregivers.
“As the Latino population increases, all these family types will
increase,” including more families in which Latino grandparents are
their grandchildren’s sole caregivers, Goodman says.
“These families will need the same types of assistance as families of
other ethnic groups,” she emphasizes, “such as respite care, financial
assistance, health insurance, linkage to services and schools and
support from other family members and friends.”
While grandchildren are typically born in the U.S., and therefore
citizens, the grandparents raising them may not be. For those who are
undocumented, accessing health care is fraught with fear, Goodman says.
California has almost 3 million of the nation’s 11.6 million
undocumented immigrants according the 2008 census data, but Goodman
admits it’s hard to get an accurate count.
“Costs are also a deterrent and often hospital emergency rooms are the
only source of assistance,” Goodman says. “Therefore, barriers to
health care are poverty and low income, lack of health insurance and
legal status, as well as language.”
The poor health of these grandparents could lead to their inability to
care for their grandchildren, Goodman added. If parents neglect their
children and families cannot provide for their youth, the child welfare
system becomes responsible and children are placed in foster care or
Steps to Independence Are Distant
Because Olvera’s grandchildren are citizens of the United States, she
hopes that eventually she will gain full custody and become their
Richard’s father, Rudolfo Reyes, would’ve alleviated the burden of
looking after the kids, Olvera says, including others his wife had by
“He didn’t care that the other kids weren’t his,” Olvera says. “He
would take them to school and on weekends to the park.”
Reyes was killed in 2008, three days after Christmas. A death
certificate indicated Reyes died of multiple gunshots. Olvera says he
had no gang affiliations.
“It was even more difficult for me after he died,” Olvera says. “I
worked, I had to take care of the kids and take them to school.”
The steps toward independence are far away. But she’s hopeful that one
day she will see both her needs and those of the children fully met.
For now she’d be happy with a job.
“Once I get a job, I can move out of here with the kids into our own
place,” Olvera says.
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