The tranquil life style many people came here to enjoy in their later years is coming to a jarring end for a growing number of retirees whose grown children want to move back in--and have AIDS.
“Some parents find out for the first time their child is gay, and at the same time that he also has AIDS. This is a real blow,” said one 56-year-old woman whose son learned that he has the disease two years ago. (She requested anonymity to protect his identity.) “Parents always think they should die first, before their children.”
“And AIDS can split families,” she added. “Some members of the family accept, others reject him. That makes it worse for everybody. And you lose friends. Some churches even reject you.”
And, said Roger Lane of the Health Crisis Network in Miami, the $50,000 to $120,000 it costs to care for someone suffering from acquired immune deficiency syndrome puts an extra burden on elderly parents with limited incomes.
Social workers and AIDS help-network officials say that more and more AIDS patients are coming to Florida. Some hope that the warm climate will help them avoid the pneumonia and flu infections to which they are susceptible. Others come from smaller states to get better medical care. Many of them have family here.
State officials have no firm data, but some clinics estimate that 10% to 15% of their AIDS patients came to Florida after diagnosis. The number of reported cases in the state, which officials said would not include some diagnosed elsewhere, has tripled since January, 1987, to 6,856, placing Florida third, behind New York and California.
“We don’t turn patients away,” said Jim Cobb, administrator of the state AIDS clinic in Palm Beach County, “but we can’t be the front doorstep for the country. We don’t want to resemble the Statue of Liberty.”
As education about AIDS improves and relatives learn that the deadly virus is not transmitted by casual contact, instances of family rejection are becoming fewer, Lane said. “Think about being at the terminal stage of your life and you have been rejected by the ones you feel close to, and you feel isolated from your relatives.”
“The scariest thing for a young person is to be alone,” said Mary Meeker, who, through a Roman Catholic Church program, works as a volunteer with the Pasco AIDS Support Community.
“I found that gays are the first ones to turn and run when they find out you have AIDS,” said a 26-year-old Hudson man who learned he has AIDS in October, “but my family has been very supportive. I’m glad they’re there.” He asked not to be identified to protect his lover. In small towns such as this one 30 miles north of Tampa on the Gulf Coast, news that someone is infected with AIDS travels quickly.
The Hernando-Pasco Hospice, which cares for terminally ill people at home, started a Pasco support group in October, 1987. The participants have painful memories: a son whose parents changed the locks; a youth whose brother-in-law told him to hurry up and die so he wouldn’t burden the family.
The hospice group has grown from four to 36 members, and two others have been started in Pasco County, where 44% of the 260,000 residents are older than 55.
“We have so many elderly people here, so many parents in one place, that we’re seeing AIDS patients from other cities, coming here to die with their parents,” said Peter Pavich, a support group member who has learned he carries the human immune deficiency virus, HIV, which causes AIDS.
Pavich said his work with the group has helped him understand his own family’s feelings of rejection. “It’s really unfair. It’s supposed to be their golden years and everything’s going great, and then they’re hit with this brick wall and everything changes.”
In this county, which is typical of rural areas being discovered by land developers, a relatively small influx of people with AIDS quickly strains services.
“There are so many things we need in this area. We need food, medical attention, outpatient care, dental treatment,” said Eva Sylvester, a hospice services coordinator. She said she recently called seven dentists before she found one who would treat an AIDS patient.
“We get frustrated, we get angry. What we need is more information and more education.”