Janice Connelly kneels by a makeshift memorial in memory of the residents who died in the heat at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills. Photo by Carline Jean/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP

By Tom Scherberger

Three months after Hurricane Irma wreaked havoc on the state and led to the deaths of 14 South Florida nursing home residents, AARP is gearing up for a legislative session it hopes will address the problems older people face during a disaster.

“It’s tragic that it took the loss of a more than a dozen lives to discover where our system was failing older Floridians, and it would be a travesty if we, as a state, do not take every appropriate action to make sure that never happens again,” said Jeff Johnson, AARP Florida state director. “We have to figure out how to protect older Floridians in whatever setting they choose to live in.”

Among AARP’s priorities for the legislative session that begins Jan. 9:

  • Requiring the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration to inspect all licensed nursing homes and assisted living facilities (ALFs) as soon as accessible after any disaster.
  • Requiring nursing homes and ALFs to have emergency power for cooling for at least four days. A 2006 legislative proposal requiring nursing homes and ALFs to have that capacity might have helped prevent the deaths at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, but it was opposed by the nursing home industry and did not pass. AARP Florida supported the legislation.
  • Requiring the Public Service Commission to force Florida’s electric utility companies to strengthen the power grid and improve direct communication with nursing homes and ALFs. The lack of power, which resulted in temperatures soaring at the Hollywood Hills nursing home after Hurricane Irma, was blamed partly on poor communication between the home and Florida Power & Light.
    Utility companies need to give nursing homes and ALFs the same priority as hospitals, Johnson said. More than 50 nursing homes were closed or evacuated after Irma, some for lack of power.
  • Increasing state funding for family caregivers, whose efforts allow older people to remain at home rather than being forced to live in an institution.
    Florida has 2.7 million self-identified caregivers, and 60,000 people at any one time are on a waiting list for state assistance that would help them in providing care for a friend, family member or other loved one.
  • Tightening coordination and improving communication among elder service facilities, county emergency managers and public utilities during disasters and other emergencies.
  • Ordering a thorough review of state and local emergency management laws and procedures so that a single agency is responsible for the safety of older residents, whether in a nursing home, ALF, retirement community or private home.
    The agency should make sure emergency planners know who the most vulnerable older residents are, where they live and what their needs are during a crisis. For example: How many people rely on electricity to power oxygen machines? How many live in multifloor buildings that need backup power for elevators?

Hurricane Irma focused attention on nursing homes, Johnson said, but state officials also need to address the future disaster-related needs of the approximately 2 million people who receive care from family members and many others who live in relative isolation.

For example, power companies should be required to create a priority list of people who need power for medical reasons, Johnson said.

Florida family members need ways to get help if older people suffer lethal heat exhaustion, he said. Beyond changes in state laws and regulations, all Floridians need to address “how to build a culture so we are better neighbors and less isolated.

“Just about any of our neighborhoods have someone who might be fine right now but could need someone to check on them” during a disaster, Johnson said.

Tom Scherberger is a writer living in Treasure Island, Fla.

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